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George Balanchine, born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, Russia, is regarded as the foremost contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet. At the age of nine, he was accepted into the ballet section of St. Petersburg's rigorous Imperial Theater School, and, with other young students, was soon appearing on the stage of the famed Maryinsky Theater in such spectacles as The Sleeping Beauty (his favorite). He graduated with honors in 1921 and joined the corps de ballet of the Maryinsky, by then renamed the State Theater of Opera and Ballet.

The son of a composer, Balanchine gained a knowledge of music early in life that far exceeded that of most of his fellow choreographers. He began piano lessons at five, and at some point between 1919 and 1921, while continuing to dance, he enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. There he studied piano and music theory, including composition, harmony, and counterpoint, for three years, and he began to compose music. (In the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, when money was worthless, he sometimes played the piano in cabarets and silent movie houses in exchange for bread.) Such extensive musical training made it possible for Balanchine as a choreographer to communicate with a composer of the stature of Stravinsky; it also gave him the ability to make piano reductions of orchestral scores, an invaluable aid in translating music into dance.

Balanchine began to choreograph while still in his teens, creating his first work in 1920 or earlier. It was a pas de deux called La Nuit, for himself and a female student, to the music of Anton Rubinstein. Another of his early duets, Enigma, danced in bare feet, was performed once at a benefit on the stage of the State Theater, as well as for some years thereafter, in both Petrograd/Leningrad and in the West. In 1923, he and some of his colleagues formed a small troupe, the Young Ballet, for which he composed several works in an experimental vein, but the authorities disapproved, and the performers were threatened with dismissal if they continued to participate. Then fatefully, in the summer of 1924, Balanchine and three other dancers were permitted to leave the newly formed Soviet Union for a tour of Western Europe. They did not return. With Balanchine were Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova, and Nicholas Efimov, all of whom later became well known in the West. Seen performing in London, the dancers were invited by the impresario Serge Diaghilev to audition for his renowned Ballets Russes and were taken into the company.

George Balanchine in Venice, 1925

Diaghilev had his eye on Balanchine as a choreographer as well and, with the departure of Bronislava Nijinska, hired him as ballet master (principal choreographer). Balanchine's first substantive effort was Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (1925), the first of four treatments he would make of this wondrous score over the years. The came a reworking of Stravinsky's Le Chant du Rossignol, in which 14-year-old Alicia Markova made her stage debut. From that time until 1929, when the Ballets Russes collapsed with Diaghilev's death, Balanchine created nine more ballets (in addition to numerous slighter pieces), including the immortal Apollon Musagète (1928) and Prodigal Son (1929). During this period, Balanchine suffered a serious knee injury. This limited his dancing and may have bolstered his commitment to full-time choreography.

The next years were uncertain ones. Balanchine was making a movie with former Diaghilev ballerina Lydia Lopokova (the wife of British economist John Maynard Keynes) when he heard of Diaghilev's death. He soon began staging dances for Britain's popular Cochran Revues; acted as guest ballet master for the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen; and was engaged by its founder René Blum as ballet master for a new Ballets Russes, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, for which he choreographed three ballets around the talents of the young Tamara Toumanova-Cotillon, La Concurrence, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Leaving the Ballets Russes (perhaps due to the aggressive presence of Colonel W. de Basil, who soon took the company away from René Blum), Balanchine formed Les Ballets 1933, with Boris Kochno, Diaghilev's last private secretary, as artistic advisor and the backing of British socialite Edward James. For the company's first-and only-season, he created six new ballets, in collaboration with such leading artistic figures as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (The Seven Deadly Sins), artist Pavel Tchelitchew (Errante), and composers Darius Milhaud (Les Songes) and Henri Sauget (Fastes). But the troupe disbanded in a matter of months. It was during its London engagement, however, that a meeting occurred that would change the history of 20th-century dance.

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