Maker and Teacher

A printed listing of the works of George Balanchine may be set alongside the Köchel catalogue of Mozart: the works of choreographer and composer share many qualities.

Balanchine has been extremely prolific. For over fifty years his invention has been uninterrupted. There has been hardly a season since he was a boy of eighteen when he has not brought out something new in the nature of dancing.

A catalogue such as the one soon to be published is not a visualization, yet even a list demonstrates the extraordinary variety and inclusiveness of Balanchine’s musical support and his unprecedented use of literature since the seventeenth century. A trained musician, he has been able to have always at his fingertips the quality of structure and sonority that fills his needs at a certain moment of development or necessity.

If he is to be compared with anyone in his time in the frame of his own talents, visual or plastic or musical, these must be Picasso and Stravinsky. Painting and musical composition, however, have had their universal acceptance for more than five hundred years, while classic academic dance, which issued from court shows in the seventeenth century and court theaters in the nineteenth, has only in our own century begun to compete on an equal level of popularity with the repertories of opera and orchestra.

He has specialized in pièces d’occasion, creating musical celebrations. Certain events summon or suggest appropriate answers. He has operated on the order of public official as well as very private experimenter. He has been profligate in stage production when patron-age was available, and parsimonious when decoration would have been superfluous or patronage was absent.

Balanchine issued from a school that inherited an imperial tradition. He left Russia at a time when the Soviet Union froze taste and attempted to stabilize artistic expression as a lowest common denominator. Entering the Diaghilev company in London at the age of twenty, he was plunged into an ambiance of extreme artistic license for which he had prepared himself by student experiments even before leaving Leningrad. When Diaghilev died, five years later, Balanchine attempted to continue the formula of elegant improvisation with whatever means were at hand. Russia was closed, the Soviet schools were no longer a source for recruitment, and the efforts of European impresarios proved haphazard and without institutional stability.

Balanchine decided to come to the United States as if the decision was almost a foregone conclusion, although there were other possibilities which might have been attractive had he not already had the experience of the Diaghilev years. When he came to America late in 1933 he founded a school which would commence teaching American dancers, toward forming an eventual American company. The School of American Ballet was conceived to be a national service school like the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, which held parity with the military and naval academies.

The first company Balanchine organized was called the American Ballet. Balanchine’s present company, founded in 1948, bears …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.