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Spotlight: George Balanchine

Hi everyone! Things have been a bit hectic recently, but I'm back with Spotlight Saturday. This week the focus is on famous choreographer George Balanchine.

George Balanchine was born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze on 22 January 1904 in St. Petersburg, Russia. As a child, Balanchine was not particularly interested in ballet, but his mother insisted that he join his sister Tamara in auditioning for the Imperial Ballet School. He was accepted in 1913, aged 9. He studied under the likes of Pavel Gerdt and Samuil Andrianov.

After graduating from the school in 1921, Balanchine danced in the corps de ballet of the State Academic Theater for Opera and Ballet (later the Mariinsky Ballet) while studying music and composition at the Petrograd Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1923. He continued to dance in the corps de ballet until 1924. During this period, he choreographed his first piece, a pas de deux called La Nuit. This was soon followed by Enigma, in which the dancers wore no shoes.

While on a tour to Germany, several dancers (including Balanchine, his wife Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova and Nicholas Efimov) fled to Paris. Sergei Diaghilev soon invited Balanchine to join the Ballet Russes as a choreographer. Not long after, he was promoted to ballet master. Until Diaghilev's death in 1929, Balanchine choreographed numerous works to music by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Claude Debussy. Famous contemporary artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse created costumes for the new ballets. In Paris in 1928, Balanchine debuted Apollon musagete (Apollo and the Muses), a work regarded as the 'original neo-classical ballet'. Apollo is known for its simplicity, as Balanchine regarded the music as more important than the narrative. At this time, Balanchine suffered a knee injury which effectively ended his performance career.

Rehearsing the ballerinas of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

After Diaghilev's death, the Ballet Russes went bankrupt. Balanchine staged dances for London variety shows and worked as a guest ballet master for the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen to earn money. In 1931, Balanchine was hired as a choreographer for the new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo along with Leonide Massine; but he was fired after only one year, as one of the company directors felt audiences preferred Massine's works. Immediately, Balanchine founded Les Ballets with Kochno, a libretto writer who had been similarly dismissed, but the company only lasted a few months in 1933.

Balanchine with prima ballerina Maria Tallchief

Balanchine relocated to the United States. His first act was to open a ballet school designed to produce strong classically trained dancers who he felt would best perform his works. After less than a year, his students premiered the now famous Serenade to music by Tchaikovsky in 1934.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Balanchine also choreographed for musical theatre, working with Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Vernon Duke. His choreography was unusual at the time because his dances furthered the plot of the story.

Balanchine moved to Hollywood in 1938 and choreographed for five movies, all of which featured his third wife Vera Zorina. During and after the Second World War, Balanchine was the resident choreographer for the newly reinvented Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Balanchine formed a new company, Ballet Society; in 1946 they performed the modernist work The Four Temperaments. After several successful performances, one of which featured the now famous Orpheus, the ballet was offered a permanent place in New York City. They became the New York City Ballet.

Balanchine coaches his dancers through 'Stars and Stripes' before a performance in Amsterdam

In 1955, Balanchine reinvented the classic ballet The Nutcracker, in which he himself created the mime role of Drosselmeyer. The company has performed the ballet every Christmas season since.

In 1967, Balanchine created his notoriously difficult Jewels. The choreography is extremely hard for both company and soloists, and one step out of place can ruin the effect of the entire piece.

Balanchine coaches dancer Arthur Mitchell

During his later years, Balanchine struggled with steadily deteriorating health. He died on 30 April 1983 in Manhattan, aged 79. The cause was later diagnosed as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which had been affecting his eyes, balance and hearing for years. The night of his death, the company went on as scheduled, performing Divertimento No. 15 and Symphony in C at Lincoln Center.

Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell in 'Don Quixote'

Balanchine has been called the father of American ballet; he co-founded the New York City Ballet and is responsible for around 400 works in the modern repertoire. His Nutcracker has become an American Christmas classic; his School of American Ballet still influences the next generation of dancers. He is almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of modern ballet, and his sharp, difficult style is a distinctive one. He is probably the only dancer to have (kind of) reached space; there is a crater on Mercury named after him.

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Alexandra Danilova.

- Selene

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