On October 18, 1933, George Balanchine disembarked in New York from the tourist class of the S.S. Olympic. Together with his manager, Vladimir Dimitriev, he had been invited to the United States by Lincoln Kirstein to create first a school of classic ballet conforming to the highest standards (in Hartford, of all places, a location soon abandoned), and then a classic ballet company. We all know what happened; it is why we are sitting here right now. But who was this 29-year-old George Balanchine and what was his real luggageãwhat was he carrying from his career experience and his dance heritage?
Balanchine, of Georgian rather than Russian descent, was born Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg on January 22, 1904. He was auditioned (almost by mistake: destined for the Naval Academy, he was simply accompanying his sister to the audition) and was accepted for dance training at what was then the Imperial Theater School in August 1913. He graduated in 1921, becoming a member of GATOB, or the Gosudadarstvenny Akademichesky Teatr Opery i Baleta (State Academic Theater for Opera and Ballet), which is what the Maryinsky/Kirov Ballet was called in the early Bolshevik days of Petrograd. As a student he had danced in most of the still comparatively new 19th-century Russian classics, starting with Marius Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty and the Petipa/Lev Ivanov Nutcracker. Fascinatinglyãproving that choreographers usually start youngãeven before he graduated into the company he had tried his hand at choreography. Soon, encouraged by his family, he started to study music intensively (his younger brother, Andrei, eventually became a distinguished Georgian composer), and for a time the young Georgi seriously considered a career as a concert pianist.
Slowly, and fortunately, his interests in dance and music fused, and he became intent on really mastering the craft of choreography. In 1921 Balanchine took part in the Evenings of Young Ballet, which Fedor Lopokhov organized with Balanchine's friend, the critic Yuri Slonimsky, and two years later Balanchine performed in Lopokhov's celebrated Dance Symphony, The Greatness of Creation at GATOB, the still-gilded opera house with peacock-blue seats, once the symbol of the Tsars, and the home of Petipa. Although the ballet, danced to Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, had only one controversial performance, its impact was tremendous, and its cast of 18 included not only Balanchine but also Alexandra Danilova, Leonid Lavrovsky (later director of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, and the original choreographer of the Soviet Romeo and Juliet), and the famous dancer, choreographer, and director Petr Gusev.
So Balanchine was now coming under the influence of a new post-Petipa generation of Russian choreographers, many themselves influenced as much by Michel Fokine and Aleksandr Gorsky as by Petipa and Ivanov. These included not only Lopokhov, but also, as Balanchine once told me himself, more particularly the lesser-known maverick, Kasyan Goleizovsky. The Muscovite Goleizovsky, 12 years Balanchine's senior, was an interesting and eventually rather sad figure. In the early and aesthetically free days of Bolshevism, Goleizovsky's modernist views on dance drew wide attention. First in Moscow, where he worked sometimes with the Chauve Souris cabaret, and later in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg/Petrograd was by then called), he placed himself in the front rank of the avant garde.
Balanchine soon found himself regarded as the leader of a small, adventurous group of Leningrad dancers. In 1924, when Russia was briefly interested in presenting its arts and its ballet abroadãthe ballerina Olga Spessivtseva had been allowed to appear in London in 1921ãDmitriev arranged for a tiny troupe calling itself Soviet State Dancers to tour Germany. Once out of the Soviet Union they auditioned for the great expatriate Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev, and most of themãincluding Balanchivadze (he changed his name chez Diaghilev), Tamara Geva (the first of Balanchine's four wives), and Alexandra Danilovaãjoined the Diaghilev Ballets Russes and stayed with the company until its dissolution upon Diaghilev's death in 1929.
It was with Diaghilev that Balanchine found his choreographic wings, creating his first two masterpieces: Apollo (June 12, 1928), which brought him into further contact with his lifelong friend, Igor Stravinsky (whom he had first met with his new production in 1925 of the composer's Le Chant du Rossignol), and the Serge Prokofiev/Georges Rouault Prodigal Son (May 21, 1929). These two ballets still remain in the international repertory, but they were not the sum total of Balanchine's five years with Diaghilev. He acquired not only a certain cultural sophistication, for Diaghilev was a dedicated educator, but, more important, enormous choreographic experience, not least from the innumerable opera-ballets he choreographed for the Monte Carlo Opera. (Later he liked to claim he learned ballet construction from the way Verdi deployed his singers and chorus.)
Yet there was probably also a negative lesson Balanchine took away from Diaghilev. It was a time when the dancers were not that wonderful, and Diaghilev himself was obsessed more with décor and concept than with choreography. A reaction to this overabundance of fashion and chic certainly helped formulate what was to become Balanchine's almost Spartan ethic and neo-classicism. With the death of Diaghilev and the subsequent break-up of the Ballets Russes, Balanchine and his then-lover, Danilova, found themselves at a loss. Balanchine soon found temporary work with the Paris Opera Ballet, but a severe illnessãhe suffered from tuberculosisãand the deft machinations of another Diaghilev refugee, the formidable Serge Lifar, prevented him from assuming the promised directorship of the company.
Discouraged, Balanchine worked in London on C. B. Cochran's revue in 1930, but, unable to get his British work visa extended, he accepted a year's offer from the Royal Danish Ballet to work as guest ballet master. The experience was not altogether happy, but the year with the Royal Danish Ballet introduced Balanchine to the work of the classic Danish master August Bournonville and surely laid the groundwork for the eventual close relationship between the Danes and NYCB.
The influence of Bournonville on Balanchine's choreography is clearly far less than that of Petipa, but works such as Tarantella, Scotch Symphony, and Donizetti Variations have strong Bournonville accents. Also Balanchine's awareness of the Danish School led to many Danish dancers (all male) joining NYCB, sometimes briefly, as in the case of Erik Bruhn, and sometimes, as with Peter Martins, for virtually their entire careers.
In 1931, with Denmark behind him, Balanchine returned to London and C. B. Cochran, and then was invited to join René Blum's newly formed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the first of a number of efforts to restore the glory of Diaghilev. He was happy there for a time, working with his special discovery Tamara Toumanova, the teenage baby ballerina, but eventually and almost inevitably fell out with the company's chief choreographer, Léonide Massine. Luckily in 1933 he became the artistic director of a small, short-lived, but influential company, Les Ballets 1933, which played brief seasons in Paris and London. And it was then that he met in London's Savoy Hotel one day with a tall, bespectacled, and determined American called Lincoln Kirstein...
Clive Barnes is the dance and senior theater critic for The New York Post and the advisory editor to Dance Magazine.