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Kirstein was a huge (6 ft. 4 in.), bullet-headed young man, who, though just out of Harvard, was already showing signs of becoming the U.S. version of Diaghilev himself (TIME, Jan. 26, 1953). An heir to a Filene department-store fortune in Boston, he was an editor of the arts magazine Hound & Horn, author of a rash first novel and a book of poetry, and teetering on the edge of balletomania. His dream: to found a truly American ballet company. There was nothing for it but to get the world's foremost Russian choreographer to spark it. Balanchine came.
The U.S. that stretched out before Immigrant Balanchine, though it had never found a ballet tradition of its own, had seen quite a bit of imported dancing. When Vienna's famed Fanny Elssler danced in Washington nearly a century before, Congress declared itself a holiday. During World War I, Pavlova had packed Manhattan's Hippodrome (on a bill with elephants and Chinese jugglers), went on to make The Dying Swan a synonym for ballet across the nation. Nijinsky had toured the country in 1916, was already a legendary dancer.
Raw Beginners. Balanchine and Kirstein put their heads together and decided that the first step in forming a company would be to open a ballet school. The reasoning: it would provide a constant source of new dancers whose training could be controlled so that they could walk right into the company. That is the way it worked out. The School of American Ballet soon became the best and busiest in the U.S., and from its classes came a stream of top American dancers.* School Director Balanchine drew up and supervised the curriculum, from the first positions of the eight-year-olds clutching the barre, to master classes for his never-finished products. "Mr. B.," says one graduate, "never makes anything easy. You think it will be simple when he starts a class, but he speeds everything up so much that before you're through you feel like a raw beginner." The school's three ballroom-size classrooms are busy from io to 7, six days a week. Its entrance hall is always acrawl with teen-agers in woolen practice tights, knitting, gossiping, giggling between sessions. Many of them take lessons every day (cost: some $450 a year). After their third year, the girls put on their first toe slippers; after their seventh or eighth, the most talented pupils are ready for positions in the company.
Some 90% of its 400 regular pupils are girls. Balanchine shakes his head sadly about this, thinks it is because U.S. parents have an idea that dancing "is sissy," despite the fact that the male dancers must be strong enough to lift ballerinas over their heads. "Look at a pitcher," he says. "His windup is just as much of a dance, if you look at it in slow motion, as anything our boys do." An Exercise in Nostalgia. From his school, Choreographer Balanchine can pick the kind of girls he always wanted for his company. His favorite qualities: 1) long legs, 2) "bird bones" (i.e., lightly boned), 3) small head, 4) strong back. A good many who were not lucky enough to get into the company after school have scattered across the U.S. to teach in some of today's 2,000-odd schools where ballet is offered. Their futures look secure: the enrollment of such schools has doubled in the past decade, now totals about 200,000.