Of all the different methods and techniques in the ballet world, the method created by George Balanchine is perhaps the most recognizable. With its open arabesque, deep pliés, and often unique port de bras, the Balanchine method is unmistakable. A Balanchine performance’s swaying hips and minimalist costuming speaks to a more modern, neoclassical style of ballet. Some criticize the style, while others praise it for the ingenuity and strength it requires. Regardless, the Balanchine method, sometimes known as the American style, has a prestigious reputation and is carefully taught. This method is also one of three ballet training methods incorporated into the curriculum at SRB.
Origins and Characteristics of the Balanchine Method
George Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg in 1904. He trained at the Imperial Ballet School and graduated in 1921. After leaving the Soviet Union, he was able to develop his dancing, choreographing, and staging in Europe. Then in late 1933, Balanchine left for New York, and in 1934, he founded the School of American Ballet. The SAB would become the world’s authority on Balanchine training and the main provider for dancers in the professional company known as the New York City Ballet.
Balanchine, being Russian, was highly influenced by the Russian pre-Vaganova method of ballet. He took basic movements found in ballet classes like pliés, tendues, and relevés and reworked them to better present line, form, and movement to an audience. He envisioned a new form of ballet that would blend the old-world Russian techniques with a much more modern and daring style that he saw in the American life. Balanchine wanted to create a method of ballet that would transform even the transitional steps into fully artistic, dazzling movements. He also wanted to create a more lengthened and streamlined look in his dancers. He developed several different ways of training students and positioning their bodies to work in a totally different, more modernized way than had ever been taught before.
How the Balanchine Method Is Taught
The Balanchine method is easily recognizable for many different reasons. One of its most notorious characteristics is its arabesque with an open hip. Ballet movements are generally built around a box, formed by the four corners of the hips and shoulders, that isn’t broken by lifting a hip or shoulder out of place. Balanchine, however, felt that opening the hip of the lifted leg would create the illusion of a higher arabesque.
The upper body in Balanchine’s method often looks very different from other methods as well. The port de bras positions tend to be more open and less curved, while the wrists tend to be more broken and the fingers more free. Lauren Lovette, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, explains in this video the details of the iconic Balanchine hands. The Balanchine method also places great emphasis on the positioning of the head. Balanchine preferred the dancer to turn her cheekbone forward and upward, as if asking for a kiss. This creates a more dynamic look, and in the words of Megan Fairchild, a principal dancer with NYCB, “It’s a three-dimensional spiral from the waist up.”
Balanchine also saw much room for change in the realm of pointework. The Russian style involves a little jump to get up on the box, or tip, of the pointe shoe. Balanchine, however, wanted to see the smooth transition of the foot rolling through to demi-pointe and then to the full pointe. In his method, there is no jump; instead the foot pulls smoothly up to the pointe. This sometimes requires the leg to pull into a tight fifth sus-sous or a perfectly lined fourth position, as if the dancer is walking on a tightrope. Balanchine’s method requires great strength and stability to smoothly roll up to pointe and back down again.
Another differing aspect of footwork—whether in pointe shoes or soft shoes—in Balanchine’s method places great emphasis on keeping the weight over the ball of the foot instead of the heels. Contrary to what some critics believe, this does not mean intentionally keeping the heel off the ground. Susan Pilarre, a ballet mistress at NYCB who trained under Balanchine, explains that “Mr. B used to say, ‘Slip a piece of paper under your heels.’ It’s important for soft landings that your torso is forward, in front of your hips, that you land in your toes.”
This principle is also the basis for another telling characteristic of the Balanchine method—training the dancers to be able to move with extreme speed. Keeping the weight on the balls of the feet allows for the dancer to always be ready for the next movement. Balanchine stressed precision of timing with the music, and felt that his method of weight distribution would help dancers immensely improve their timing.
The Balanchine Method at Studio R Ballet
At SRB, the Vaganova and Cecchetti methods are taught to students from the beginning of their training. Because the Balanchine method requires dancers to be extremely strong and flexible, the Balanchine method is only formally introduced when dancers are deemed to be at a sufficiently advanced level. It is taught particularly in pointe work and variations classes.
However, appropriate principles of the Balanchine method are taught at the beginning of a dancer’s training at SRB. For example, students are encouraged to periodically lift their hands off the barre throughout warm-up exercises to ensure that their weight is kept on the balls of the feet. From there, a core part of the training at SRB involves teaching dancers to use the inner thighs to attack combinations and choreography with speed and precision. This includes exercises at the barre as well as in the center.
Studio R Ballet is privileged in employing several Balanchine-trained instructors. Our instructors have a deep understanding and appreciation for Balanchine and his legacy, and we seek to instill this in our students throughout their training.