Balancing Balanchine

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Balanchine rehearses with dancer Suzanne Farrell for a production of Don Quixote in 1965

Any good artist leaves behind works of value when he dies. When a great artist dies, he leaves an entire landscape transformed. George Balanchine, the protean choreographer whose centenary is being celebrated this year by ballet companies the world over, left his imprint virtually everywhere in dance. Take a look at the typical American ballerina today: long, leggy, prodigiously athletic compared with the more compact, sedate ballerina of old. That’s the female figure that Balanchine cultivated — and glorified in so many of his works. Consider the prevalence today of ballets stripped of fairy-tale plots and elaborate costumes and sets — no story, just a focus on the music and movement. That’s the aesthetic that Balanchine championed in pioneering works like Concerto Barocco (1941), Agon (1957) and Jewels (1967); he taught viewers to find drama solely in the beguiling patterns of his dancers massing, breaking apart, recombining, forming symmetries, tracing variations.

One of Balanchine’s greatest transformations was on the other side of the footlights. When he and his patron Lincoln Kirstein founded the New York City Ballet in 1948, the audience for ballet in the U.S. was on a par with that for, say, dog shows or jai alai. Today, although support for orchestras and theater companies is wavering, ballet is booming, with new companies proliferating and talented youngsters springing up continually. Much of the credit goes to Balanchine, to the brilliance of his 400-plus works and to the seminal influence of the NYCB and its satellite School of American Ballet.

Balanchine died in 1983 at age 79. Today no fewer than 34 U.S. ballet companies are run by people he trained, among them the San Francisco Ballet (directed by Helgi Tomasson), the Miami City Ballet (Edward Villella) and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Washington. Countless other Balanchine alumni are serving as ballet masters, choreographers and teachers. “No other modern choreographer has attracted so many devoted followers, and no other body of dances has inspired so thoroughgoing and committed an attempt at long-term preservation,” says critic Terry Teachout, who is writing a short biography of Balanchine. “It’s a sign that the Balanchine style may be evolving into a lingua franca for ballet in the 21st century — a common language of dance spoken by everybody, everywhere.”

Balanchine’s own training couldn’t have been more traditional, and his use of it couldn’t have been more innovative. As a child he absorbed the classical Russian ballet style at the Maryinsky Ballet School in St. Petersburg. Everything in his later career was based on that fundamental dance vocabulary, but he stretched it, opened up its gestures, added more jumps and turns, and gave it a startling new speed, clarity and sharpness of attack. He thought nothing of blending it with highland reels (Scotch Symphony, 1952) or stylized Japanese movements (Bugaku, 1963) or whatever other genre took his fancy.

After he moved to the U.S. in 1933, he enthusiastically embraced all things American. He liked to boast that despite his Russian upbringing and European background (he had danced and choreographed in Germany, France, England and Denmark), “I’m more American than anybody.” He set ballets to the music of Charles Ives, George Gershwin and John Philip Sousa. He choreographed dances for Hollywood movies (notably the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue sequence in On Your Toes, 1936) and Broadway musicals (including The Boys from Syracuse, 1938). He even famously devised a polka for the elephants in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Choreography, Balanchine suggested, wasn’t a lofty art but a craft like that of a cabinetmaker or a chef turning out his sauces and soufflés. Always he saw himself at the service of the music, particularly that of Igor Stravinsky, a personal and artistic soulmate to whose scores he set 39 works. Instead of elaborately plotting his ballets in advance, he simply rolled up his sleeves and went to work with his dancers. “Choreography just kept pouring out of him,” says Helgi Tomasson. “He made up the steps in the studio. I could barely keep up with him. I remember one solo he choreographed in an hour and 20 minutes. It was astonishing.”

Balanchine could be charming and funny, but some part of him remained unknowable, enigmatic. He seemed indifferent to money and accepted as little as $50 per performance in royalties when other troupes staged his works, recalls his onetime assistant Barbara Horgan, director of the George Balanchine Trust, which licenses performances by other companies. He formed intense bonds with his favored female dancers, making them his muses. He married four of them — Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil LeClercq — and had liaisons with others. Male or female, close or remote, most of his dancers revered their “Mr. B.” “I can’t say that I knew him well,” says former NYCB dancer Ib Andersen, artistic director of Ballet Arizona. “But his ballets are part of me, his musicality, his timing, his sense of structure. My god, this man did everything.” Those who worked with him, says Edward Villella, “understood we were in a moment of history. Picasso and Stravinsky changed their art forms in the last century. Balanchine did that for ours.”

Balanchine would never have made such a sweeping claim. He once said, “I don’t care about past. And future — I wouldn’t know what it is. To me, today is everything.” Perhaps the very intensity and immediacy of his art is the reason why this man who drew so richly on the past and gave so much to the future remains such a vital presence today. — With reporting by Jeremy Caplan