Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze
January 22, 1904
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
|Died||April 30, 1983 (aged 79)|
|Occupation||Dancer, choreographer, actor, director|
(m. 1921; div. 1926)
(m. 1938; div. 1946)
(m. 1946; ann. 1952)
(m. 1952; div. 1969)
|Awards||Presidential Medal of Freedom, among others (see below)|
George Balanchine (; born Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze; Georgian: ; January 22, 1904 (O. S. January 9) - April 30, 1983) was a Georgian-American ballet choreographer who was one of the most influential 20th-century choreographers. Styled as the father of American ballet, he co-founded the New York City Ballet and remained its Artistic Director for more than 35 years. His choreography is characterized by plotless ballets with minimal costume and décor, performed to classical and neoclassical music.
Born in St. Petersburg, Balanchine took the standards and technique from his time at the Imperial Ballet School and fused it with other schools of movement that he had adopted during his tenure on Broadway and in Hollywood, creating his signature "neoclassical style".
He was a choreographer known for his musicality; he expressed music with dance and worked extensively with leading composers of his time like Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine was invited to America in 1933 by a young arts patron named Lincoln Kirstein, and together they founded the School of American Ballet. Along with Kirstein, Balanchine also co-founded the New York City Ballet (NYCB).
Balanchine was born Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire, son of Georgian opera singer and composer Meliton Balanchivadze, one of the founders of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre and later the culture minister of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia, which became independent in 1918 but was later subsumed into the Soviet Union.
The rest of the Georgian side of Balanchine's family consisted largely of artists and soldiers. Little is known of Balanchine's Russian, maternal side. His mother, Meliton's second wife, Maria Nikolayevna Vasilyeva, is said to be the daughter of Nikolai von Almedingen, a German, who later left Russia and abandoned his family, causing Maria to take her mother's name. She was fond of ballet and viewed it as a form of social advancement from the lower reaches of Saint Petersburg society. She was eleven years younger than Meliton and rumored to have been his former housekeeper, although "she had at least some culture in her background" as she could play piano well.
As a child, Balanchine was not particularly interested in ballet, but his mother insisted that he audition with his sister Tamara, who shared her mother's interest in the art. Balanchine's brother Andria Balanchivadze instead followed his father's love for music and became a composer in Soviet Georgia. Tamara's career, however, would be cut short by her death in unknown circumstances as she was trying to escape on a train from besieged Leningrad to Georgia.
Based on his audition, during 1913 (at age nine), Balanchine relocated from rural Finland[clarification needed] to Saint Petersburg and was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School, principal school of the Imperial Ballet, where he was a student of Pavel Gerdt and Samuil Andrianov (Gerdt's son-in-law).
After graduating in 1921, Balanchine enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory while working in the corps de ballet at the State Academic Theater for Opera and Ballet (formerly the State Theater of Opera and Ballet and known as the Mariinsky Ballet). His studies at the conservatory included advanced piano, music theory, counterpoint, harmony, and composition. Balanchine graduated from the conservatory during 1923, and danced as a member of the corps until 1924. While still in his teens, Balanchine choreographed his first work, a pas de deux named La Nuit (1920, music by Anton Rubinstein). This was followed by another duet, Enigma, with the dancers in bare feet rather than ballet shoes. During 1923, with fellow dancers, Balanchine formed a small ensemble, the Young Ballet.
On a 1924 visit to Germany with the Soviet State Dancers, Balanchine, his wife, Tamara Geva, and dancers Alexandra Danilova and Nicholas Efimov fled to Paris, where there was a large Russian community. At this time, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev invited Balanchine to join the Ballets Russes as a choreographer.
Diaghilev soon promoted Balanchine to ballet master of the company and encouraged his choreography. Between 1924 and Diaghilev's death in 1929, Balanchine created nine ballets, as well as lesser works. During these years, he worked with composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel, and artists who designed sets and costumes, such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, and Henri Matisse, creating new works that combined all the arts.
Among his new works, during 1928 in Paris, Balanchine premiered Apollon musagète (Apollo and the muses) in a collaboration with Stravinsky; it was one of his most innovative ballets, combining classical ballet and classical Greek myth and images with jazz movement. He described it as "the turning point in my life". Apollo is regarded as the original neoclassical ballet. Apollo brought the male dancer to the forefront, giving him two solos within the ballet. Apollo is known for its minimalism, utilizing simple costumes and sets. This allowed the audience not to be distracted from the movement. Balanchine considered music to be the primary influence on choreography, as opposed to the narrative.
Suffering a serious knee injury, Balanchine had to limit his dancing, effectively ending his performance career.
After Diaghilev's death, the Ballets Russes went bankrupt. To earn money, Balanchine began to stage dances for Charles B. Cochran's revues and Sir Oswald Stoll's variety shows in London. He was retained by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen as a guest ballet master. Among his new works for the company were Danses Concertantes, a pure dance piece to music by Stravinsky, and Night Shadow, revived under the title La Sonnambula, the haunting tale of a poet who falls in love with a mysterious and alluring sleepwalker.
In 1931, with the help from financier Serge Denham, René Blum and Colonel Wassily de Basil formed the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, a successor to Ballets Russes. The new company hired Leonide Massine and Balanchine as choreographers. Featured dancers included David Lichine and Tatiana Riabouchinska. In 1933, without consulting Blum, Col. de Basil dropped Balanchine after one year - ostensibly because he thought that audiences preferred the works choreographed by Massine. Librettist Boris Kochno was also let go, while dancer Tamara Toumanova (a strong admirer of Balanchine's) left the company when Balanchine was fired.
Balanchine and Kochno immediately founded Les Ballets 1933, with Kochno, Diaghilev's former secretary and companion, serving as artistic advisor. The company was financed by Edward James, a British poet and ballet patron. The company lasted only a couple of months during 1933, performing only in Paris and London, when the Great Depression made arts more difficult to fund. Balanchine created several new works, including collaborations with composers Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, Henri Sauguet and designer Pavel Tchelitchew.
Balanchine insisted that his first project in the United States would be to establish a ballet school because he wanted to develop dancers who had strong technique along with his particular style. Compared to his classical training, he thought they could not dance well. With the assistance of Lincoln Kirstein and Edward M.M. Warburg, the School of American Ballet opened to students on January 2, 1934, less than three months after Balanchine arrived in the U.S. Later that year, Balanchine had his students perform in a recital, where they premiered his new work Serenade to music by Tchaikovsky at the Warburg summer estate. The school of American Ballet became and is now a home for dancers of New York City Ballet as well as companies from all over the world.
Between his ballet activities in the 1930s and 1940s, Balanchine choreographed Broadway musicals written by such notables as Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Vernon Duke. Among them, Balanchine choreographed Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes in 1936, where his program billing specified "Choreography by George Balanchine" as opposed to the usual billing of "Dances staged by." This marked the first time in Broadway history that a dance-maker received choreography billing for a Broadway musical. On Your Toes featured two ballets: La Princesse Zenobia and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, in which a tap dancer falls in love with a dance-hall girl. Balanchine's choreography in musicals was unique at the time because it furthered the plot of the story.
Balanchine relocated his company to Hollywood during 1938, where he rented a white two-story house with "Kolya", Nicholas Kopeikine, his "rehearsal pianist and lifelong colleague", on North Fairfax Avenue not far from Hollywood Boulevard. Balanchine created dances for five movies, all of which featured Vera Zorina, whom he met on the set of The Goldwyn Follies and who subsequently became his second wife. He reconvened the company as the American Ballet Caravan and toured with it throughout North and South America, but it folded after several years. From 1944 to 1946, during and after World War II, Balanchine served as resident choreographer for Blum & Massine's new iteration of Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo.
Soon Balanchine formed a new dance company, Ballet Society, again with the generous help of Lincoln Kirstein. He continued to work with contemporary composers such as Paul Hindemith, from whom he commissioned a score in 1940 for The Four Temperaments. First performed on November 20, 1946, this modernist work was one of his early abstract and spare ballets, angular and very different in movement. After several successful performances, the most notable featuring the ballet Orpheus created in collaboration with Stravinsky and sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, the City of New York offered the company residency at the New York City Center.
In 1954, Balanchine created his version of The Nutcracker, in which he played the mime role of Drosselmeyer. The company has since performed the ballet every year in New York City during the Christmas season. His other famous ballets created for New York companies include Firebird, Allegro Brilliante, Agon, The Seven Deadly Sins, and Episodes.
In 1967, Balanchine's ballet Jewels displayed specific characteristics of Balanchine's choreography. The corps de ballet dancers execute rapid footwork and precise movements. The choreography is difficult to execute and all dancers must do their jobs in order to hold the integrity of the piece. Balanchine's use of musicality can also be seen in this work. His other famous works with New York City Ballet are popular today and are performed in the Lincoln Center by New York City Ballet: Mozartiana, Apollo, Orpheus, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
After years of illness, Balanchine died on April 30, 1983, aged 79, in Manhattan from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which was diagnosed only after his death. He first showed symptoms during 1978 when he began losing his balance while dancing. As the disease progressed, his equilibrium, eyesight, and hearing deteriorated. By 1982, he was incapacitated. The night of his death, the company went on with its scheduled performance, which included Divertimento No. 15 and Symphony in C at Lincoln Center.
Clement Crisp, one of the many writers who eulogized Balanchine, assessed his contribution: "It is hard to think of the ballet world without the colossal presence of George Balanchine ..." In his lifetime he created 465 works. Balanchine extended the traditions of classical ballet. His choreography remains the same to the present day and the School of American Ballet still uses his teaching technique. As one of the 20th century's best-known choreographers, his style and vision of ballet is interesting to many generations of choreographers.
In 1923, Balanchine married Tamara Geva, a sixteen-year-old dancer. After later parting ways with Geva, he became romantically involved with the ballerina Alexandra Danilova, from approximately 1924 to 1931. As the New York Times described their relationship in its obituary for Danilova: "She and Balanchine left the Soviet Union in 1924... Until 1931, she and Balanchine lived together as husband and wife, although they were never married. Balanchine was still officially married to another dancer, Tamara Geva, and he told Miss Danilova that because his marriage papers had been left behind in Russia, he feared it might be difficult to arrange a legal separation." He married and divorced three more times, all to women who were his dancers: Vera Zorina (1938-1946), Maria Tallchief (1946-1952), and Tanaquil LeClercq (1952-1969). He had no children by any of his marriages and no known offspring from any of his extramarital liaisons.
Biographer and intellectual historian Clive James has argued that Balanchine, despite his creative genius and brilliance as a ballet choreographer, had his darker side. In his Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007), James writes that:
the great choreographer ruled the New York City Ballet as a fiefdom, with the 'droit du seigneur' among his privileges. The older he became, the more consuming his love affairs with his young ballerinas ... When [ballerina Suzanne Farrell] fell in love with and married a young dancer, Balanchine dismissed her from the company, thereby injuring her career for a crucial decade.
With his School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet, and 400 choreographed works, Balanchine transformed American dance and created neoclassical ballet, developing a unique style with his dancers highlighted by brilliant speed and attack.
George Balanchine Way is a segment of West 63rd Street (located between Columbus Avenue and Broadway) in New York City that was renamed in his honor in June 1990.
Over the decades Balanchine shared his artistic insights with several of his students including: