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

News
Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Finis Jhung teaching a virtual class. Photo courtesy Ruden

Looking back, it's hard to describe how terrifying the early days of the pandemic were in New York City. The sudden shutdown of our daily lives; the scarcity of toilet paper and reports of food shortages; the empty stillness of the streets of Manhattan and the sight of the USNS Comfort hospital ship from my bedroom window; the conflicting information on how to stay safe; and the daily press conferences with Governor Cuomo recounting intubations and the daily death toll.

I watched the hospital employees walking to Mount Sinai Hospital next door and marked the passing of time by the daily seven o'clock tribute to essential workers that broke the eerie silences.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Break the Floor Productions, courtesy Meismer

Revered NUVO convention teacher Mark Meismer has made a career out of not compromising his values—and it's paid off.

Take Meismer's practically unheard-of NUVO convention schedule—a weekly Friday/Saturday shift that's allowed him to prioritize time with his daughter and attend church on Sundays.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.