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The History Lesson Plan of the Russian father of American ballet: George Balanchine

Balanchine rehearsing Diana Adams and Jacques d'Amboise, circa 1963. Photo by Martha Swope ©NYPL for the Performing Arts.

With an expansive and athletic style, George Balanchine (1904–1983) helped shape American ballet. His frequent exaggeration of classical vocabulary birthed the neoclassical movement and sparked what we now know as contemporary ballet. With technically demanding choreography that highlighted the ballerina, Balanchine developed a sophisticated approach to ballet training.


The young choreographer first entered the professional ballet world at 17, as a member of the Maryinsky Theatre Ballet. Seeking new Western opportunities, he left the Soviet Union in 1924 and joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, where he choreographed for the company. After Diaghilev's death five years later, Balanchine traveled Europe, staging musical revues and choreographing for various companies. He established his own company in 1933, though it was unsuccessful. When American impresario Lincoln Kirstein suggested Balanchine relocate to the United States to form a ballet company, Balanchine agreed and famously replied that they first needed a school. The School of American Ballet opened in New York City on January 2, 1934, and it remains one of the top training grounds in the world.

Over the next few years, Balanchine continued to build the school and choreographed for both Broadway and Hollywood. He and Kirstein formed the touring troupe American Ballet Caravan in 1941, and in 1946, they established Ballet Society, a New York City–based company that performed for an elite, subscription-only audience. In 1948 Ballet Society became the New York City Ballet, and Balanchine remained at its helm until his death.

The Work:

Balanchine's more than 400 musically driven and often plotless works vary in style—from lyrical to neoclassical, jazzy to athletic. Many works remain in the repertory of New York City Ballet and are restaged for ballet companies worldwide through The George Balanchine Trust.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Sarah Ricard Orza and Batkhurel Bold in Apollo

- Apollo (1928)

- Serenade (1934): Set to music by Tchaikovsky; created as a workshop for School of American Ballet's students

- Concerto Barocco (1941): When the work was performed in 1951, Balanchine costumed it in leotards and tights—likely the first appearance of his contemporary ballets' signature look.

- The Four Temperaments (1946): The geometric and architectural movements became a hallmark of Balanchine's future neoclassical works.

- George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (1954)

- Western Symphony (1954): Balanchine's homage to cowboys of the Old West; set to traditional American tunes.

- Agon (1957)

- Stars and Stripes (1958): Set to John Philip Sousa's marches; the patriotic ballet is dedicated to Fiorello H. LaGuardia, former New York City mayor who founded New York's City Center of Music and Drama.

- Jewels (1967)

- Who Cares? (1970): With music by George Gershwin, the jazzy ballet evokes the bustle of life in NYC.

- Variations for Orchestra (1982): Balanchine's final work, rechoreographed for the Stravinsky Centennial Celebration shortly before his death in 1983.

- Balanchine's Broadway and silver screen credits include On Your Toes, Cabin in the Sky, Where's Charley? and the film The Goldwyn Follies.

The Legacy:

• Peter Martins succeeded Balanchine as New York City Ballet's co-ballet master in chief with Jerome Robbins.

• Many former New York City Ballet dancers have passed on Balanchine's work to a new generation of dancers and dance patrons. They include:

Suzanne Farrell, artistic director of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet; Edward Villella, founding artistic director of Miami City Ballet; Arthur Mitchell, co-founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, founding artistic directors of Pacific Northwest Ballet.

• The George Balanchine Trust was created in 1987; it's responsible for licensing his ballets and organizing répétiteurs (like Francia Russell, see page 36) to teach and stage his work.

Janie Taylor (center) and
New York City Ballet dancers in Serenade, 2010

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