Article abstract: Balanchine transformed ballet into a diverse, vibrantly contemporary, American medium. He established a training tradition and brought ballet to the forefront of the performing arts in the United States.
George Balanchine was born on January 22, 1904, in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city more European than Russian in its culture. His father, Meliton Balanchivadze, was a composer of modest means best known for his arrangements of folk songs from his native Georgia in the Caucasus. As a child, Balanchine studied the piano and considered careers in the military or the church. These early plans foretold his future work, which was to combine extraordinary physical discipline with spiritual expression inspired by music.
Balanchine entered the world of ballet by accident. Unable to enroll in the Imperial Naval Academy in August, 1914, he accompanied his sister to an audition at the Imperial School of Ballet and was invited to audition as well. He passed (she failed), and, because of the family’s financial difficulties, he was enrolled and left there the same day. A reluctant student (he immediately ran away from school), Balanchine nevertheless passed the probationary first year. The turnaround in his attitude toward the profession chosen for him occurred during his second year, when he appeared in a performance of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty (1890), performed by the Imperial Ballet Company at the Maryinsky Theatre. The experience dazzled him, and performing became the motivation for undergoing the rigorous training at the school.
Meanwhile, political events were affecting the cloistered, tradition-bound existence of his world. Balanchine entered the Imperial School of Ballet the month in which World War I was declared, and in 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution closed the school until the following year, during which time Balanchine scrounged the city for food and took menial jobs in order to survive. The commissar for education, Anatole Lunarcharsky, convinced Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, chairman of the Soviet government, that the performing arts should be considered a valuable heritage of the working class rather than a decadent practice of the aristocracy. While the argument saved the school, this same viewpoint would eventually threaten Balanchine’s early choreographic career.
Reminiscences of fellow students from this period refer to Balanchine’s modest, untemperamental, yet authoritative manner and his great capacity for gaiety and wit. He was a slender, dark-haired man with brooding eyes reflecting an intense concentration.
The groundwork for Balanchine’s unique contributions to choreography was laid as he explored his varied artistic interests. While still a student, he distinguished himself by his unusual musical ability and by choreographing small works for student concerts. Upon graduation in 1921, he entered the Imperial Ballet Company as a member of the corps de ballet and at the same time became a student at the Petrograd (Leningrad) Conservatory of Music for three years to study piano and composition. At the end of his studies, deciding that he could not become a significant composer, he directed his life totally to the world of ballet.
In the early days of the Revolution, there were no consistent policies to inhibit a young choreographer such as Balanchine in his experimentation. Influenced by aspects of the choreography of Marius Petipa (1822-1910), the established Michel Fokine, and his contemporary Kasyan Goleizovsky, Balanchine was drawn to develop a new dance vocabulary that would interpret music and evoke moods, unfettered by the constraints of presenting an actual story and undistracted by complicated costumes and scenery.
In 1923, after the second of his controversial special performances, “Evenings of the Young Ballet,” the directors of the Maryinsky Theatre announced that any dancers taking part in such programs without special permission would be fired. This decree effectively ended Balanchine’s endeavors in the Soviet Union. The following year, he joined a small performing group that had received permission to tour in Germany, and with the first of his four dancer wives, Tamara Gevergeyeva (later Geva), Balanchine left the Soviet Union for the West.
Balanchine saw his education as having two phases: his training in Russia and his five years as choreographer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo, a post he obtained shortly after he left the Soviet Union in 1924. Diaghilev was an impresario of remarkable vision and taste, who employed the most notable artists of the early twentieth century, including painters Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, composers Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie, and dancers Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, to create and perform ballets throughout Europe. Both the intellectual elite and the fashionable society of Europe were fascinated by Diaghilev’s experimentation and achievements. Balanchine’s lifelong collaboration and friendship with Stravinsky date from these years.
Two of Balanchine’s highly acclaimed works of the 1920’s were considered to be turning points in choreographic development: Apollo (1928), for its contemporary interpretation of classical ballet style, which closely reflected Stravinsky’s score; and The Prodigal Son (1929), a biblical theme to music by Sergey Prokofiev, danced expressionistically with a vocabulary inspired by circus movements. After Diaghilev’s death in 1929, Balanchine choreographed for several companies including the newly formed Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and his own struggling group Les Ballets 1933, in Paris.
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