George Balanchine is one of the most iconic names in ballet. He was at once a dancer, a choreographer, an originator of many ballets, a co-founder of the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet, the developer of the Balanchine method, and the father of American ballet. He originated the genre of neoclassical ballet and, many would say, breathed life into the world of 20th-century ballet. He is celebrated not only for his sheer volume accomplishments, but also because his legacy has left a profound impact on the ballet world—especially in the United States.
George Balanchine was born Georgiy Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg in 1904. He trained at the Imperial Ballet School, graduated in 1921, and went on to study music at the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. This area of study would greatly help him in his choreographing and staging career later in life. In 1924, while touring with a dance troupe outside the Soviet Union, Balanchine defected from his home nation and joined the Ballets Russes in Paris. It was here that he realized his talent for choreographing and staging, as he created several original ballets. In late 1933, Balanchine left Europe for New York, and in 1934, he co-founded the School of American Ballet along with Lincoln Kirstein and Edward M.M. Warburg. The SAB would become the world’s authority on Balanchine training and the main provider for dancers in the professional company now known as the New York City Ballet.
Balanchine came to the U.S. with a vision of a new, revitalized style of ballet. He wanted to blend tried-and-true techniques from his Russian training with the energy and vibrancy he saw in the fast-paced life of Americans. He believed that ballet dancers should be able to dance with speed, precision, and strength. Highly notable is the fact that Balanchine spent much of his American career in the time of the Cold War. Through his Soviet background and American ideals, Balanchine was able to act as an unusual sort of diplomat in the midst of tension between the two nations.
The principles in Balanchine’s method emphasize several different aspects—he wanted to see dancing that was streamlined yet graceful and quick but methodical. Balanchine’s method is one that is taught in schools across North America, and is praised for its modernity and strength-building qualities.
While other methods of ballet can have an austere, removed quality to them, Balanchine wanted his audience to connect with the dancers in a new way. He had his dancers spot the front audience during turns, instead of the direction of travel, as is customary in other methods. This way, the dancers never forget to present to the audience, and the audience feels a new level of connection that hadn’t been seen before.
Perhaps the most notable of Balanchine’s ideals is his emphasis on musicality. Everything he taught was to allow the audience, as he put it, to “see the music, hear the dance.” He instructed his dancers to open their fingers and “break” their wrists in an effort to help the upper body to look more weightless and less rigid—essentially, to make their dancing look as graceful as the music sounded to the audience. He showed his dancers how to always keep their weight on the balls of their feet so that they would “arrive at [their] destination on time and not a nanosecond later,” to ensure they were completely mirroring the music. He emphasized a quick but smooth transition in pointework to increase the flowing nature of the music. Balanchine wanted to see a seamless melding of music and dance, and everything he taught was a way of creating that blend.
Balanchine’s ballets are performed by companies across the United States and are universally beloved. They are exciting and harness the hopeful, energetic spirit that Balanchine saw as an integral part of the American life. His ballets are revolutionary in more ways than one: his neoclassical style meant that costuming would often be minimal, almost studio-like; plots would be simple, if existent at all; and choreography would be unexpected. He wanted the transitions between steps—the fourth-position plié preparation for a pirouette, for example—to look like artistic movements in themselves. No one would expect a pirouette to follow that plié because it would involve a straightened back leg and drop the moment of hesitation before the turn. Every element of his works would be something different from what the audience would expect.
Today, the Balanchine Trust exists to ensure his teachings and works are kept in the way he instructed when he was alive. Some have pointed out that what Balanchine did to American ballet—to revolutionize, evolve, and breathe life into a somewhat antiquated field—is the opposite of what the Balanchine Trust does today. However, it’s worth noting that the Balanchine method requires its dancers to be very strong and flexible and have an extremely solid technical foundation. It should only be taught to those who are truly well advanced enough to handle it, and should only be performed by those who have been taught correct methods to avoid injury—or allow techniques from other methods that Balanchine disliked to be showcased in one of his ballets.
At Studio R, we are extremely fortunate to employ several instructors who have been trained in the Balanchine method. We are not a strictly Balanchine school, but we employ his techniques in a way that cultivates appreciation, respect, and admiration for his legacy.