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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2011

19 - George Balanchine

from Part IV - The twentieth century: tradition becomes modern


It’s like watching light pass through a prism. The music passes through him, and in the same natural yet marvellous way that a prism refracts light, he refracts music into dance.”

(martha graham)

Balanchine has been likened to Mozart and Shakespeare for his universal appeal and prolific creative output and to Picasso and Matisse for his contributions to twentieth-century art. His friend and collaborator Igor Stravinsky, not famous for complimenting his peers, declared that “The world is full of pretty good concert pianists, but a choreographer such as Balanchine is, after all, the rarest of beings”. In the years since Balanchine's death in 1983 his ballets have remained a staple of New York City Ballet programmes each season and are widely performed by other companies as well, many of them led by former Balanchine dancers who work hard to recreate “Mr B's” ballets as faithfully as possible. It is rare for a choreographer to have this many works still in performance (to say nothing of the continuing influence of his school of technique – a streamlined version of classical ballet notable for its speed, energy, clarity, restylings of some of the original dance positions and emphasis on music as the heart of ballet).

What was so extraordinary about Balanchine as a working artist? First, he approached choreography as a craft akin to cooking or carpentry. He worked easily with what was available, adjusting his choreography to a dancer's strengths and was never fazed by the notion that a ballet might disappear forever after its performance. Moreover, Balanchine made ballets quickly and was, as a result, prolific, creating hundreds of ballets over the course of his life. He needed, most of all, to be in the studio working directly with his dancers and he found joy in the process of, as he liked to say, “assembling”.