Master of the Dance
George Balanchine transformed the world of ballet.
He is widely regarded as the most influential choreographer of the 20th century, and he co-founded two of ballet’s most important institutions: New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1904, studied at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, and danced with the Maryinsky Theatre Ballet Company, where he began choreographing short works. In the summer of 1924, Balanchine left the newly formed Soviet Union for Europe, where he was invited by impresario Serge Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes. For that company, Balanchine choreographed his first important ballets: Apollo (1928) and Prodigal Son (1929).
After Ballets Russes was dissolved following Diaghilev’s death in 1929, Balanchine spent his next few years on a variety of projects in Europe and then formed his own company, Les Ballets 1933, in Paris. There, he met American arts connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein, who persuaded him to come to the United States. In 1934, the pair founded the School of American Ballet, which remains in operation to this day, training students for companies around the world.
Balanchine’s first ballet in the U.S., Serenade, set to the music of Tchaikovsky, was created for School of American Ballet students and premiered on June 9, 1934, on the grounds of an estate in White Plains, New York.
Balanchine brought some of his dancers to Hollywood during 1938, and lived in a white two-story house 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 wife.
He reconvened his 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 the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein founded several short-lived ballet companies before forming Ballet Society in 1946, which was renamed New York City Ballet in 1948. Balanchine served as the Company’s ballet master from that year until his death in 1983, building it into one of the most important performing arts institutions in the world, and a cornerstone of the cultural life of New York City. He choreographed 425 works over the course of 60-plus years, and his musical choices ranged from Tchaikovsky (one of his favorite composers) to Stravinsky (his compatriot and friend) to Gershwin (who embodied the choreographer’s love of America). Balanchine’s works are considered masterpieces and are performed by ballet companies all over the world.
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