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Russia: Balanchine -- The Choreographer Who Shaped The Future Of American Ballet

  • Nikola Krastev

http://gdb.rferl.org/7F60BAA1-DF77-4292-AE9E-D764C113C524_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/7F60BAA1-DF77-4292-AE9E-D764C113C524_mw800_mh600.jpg This year marks the centenary of the birth of George Balanchine. The Russian-born choreographer is credited with nearly single-handedly creating contemporary American ballet, and his company, the New York City Ballet (NYCB), rose to world prominence on the strength of his stripped-down, deeply musical works. The NYCB last week hosted a panel discussion on the choreographer and his efforts to promote ballet in the United States.

New York, 30 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- George Balanchine -- born Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze in 1904 -- is perhaps the best-known name in the world of contemporary dance.

More than two decades after his death, his works continue to be performed throughout the world. His 400-plus dances remain a standard-bearer of modern choreography.

Balanchine left the Soviet Union in 1924, and went on to reinvent American ballet -- using the best of Russian classical technique and musicality to create an entirely new contemporary style.

"I think he was fascinated by Americana. I think that American musical theater and American 'personality' had a great deal of influence on how he shaped his dance."
His "leotard ballets" -- so called because his dancers, stripped of their tutus and frills, performed in the lean simplicity of rehearsal clothes -- combined highly stylized, plotless neoclassical choreography with some of the most powerful compositions of the century, like Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto.

Balanchine, who collaborated with Stravinsky on a number of projects, repeatedly noted the importance of music in his work, as in this television appearance in 1972.

"I am just a simple choreographer that learned how to read music. For me this is very important, because music is the basis, or the floor, that we walk on. And the best musicians, the best composers for dance -- who created the music, who invented what you call 'ballet' now -- were Tchaikovsky, Delibes, and Stravinsky," Balanchine said.

The son of a composer, Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg and trained at the city's Imperial Ballet Academy, the starting ground for many dancers from the country's legendary Kirov Ballet. But by the age of 30, he was settled in the United States, co-founding the School of American Ballet and eventually the New York City Ballet -- and fully embracing American musical culture.

Ken Stowell, who danced with the City Ballet from 1962-70, says American elements had a significant impact on the evolution of Balanchine's style.

"I think he was fascinated by Americana. I think that American musical theater and American 'personality,' for a lack of better description, had a great deal of influence on how he shaped his dance. And it inspired him to do things that he probably couldn't have gotten out of Russian technique. But I also think, from my perspective, that Mr. B has always been changing, always evolving, so in a certain way the Balanchine style died when he did," Stowell said.

In addition to ballet, Balanchine choreographed numerous musical comedies for Broadway and Hollywood. He also adapted popular American music for his City Ballet dancers -- most famously in the 1970 work "Who Cares," which features 16 songs by legendary composer George Gershwin.

Francia Russell was a principal dancer with the City Ballet from 1959-61 and went on to serve as the company's ballet mistress -- the person responsible for rehearsing the ballets in the company repertoire. She says Balanchine's effortless blend of music and rhythm was one of the most distinctive characteristics of his choreography.

"I think the thing that thrilled me the most from the very beginning, learning the ballets and taking Mr. Balanchine's classes was the musicality, which was so much integrated into all the movements. It was something I hadn't experienced in that way before," Russell said.

Many dancers connected to the New York City Ballet remember Balanchine as a rigorous instructor, both physically and philosophically. Peter Martins is a former City Ballet principal who retired from the stage after Balanchine's death in 1983 to become the company's ballet master. He says Balanchine's teaching went far beyond the basics of ballet technique.

"I don't know if the word is 'technique' or 'style' -- to me, it's an aesthetic. I asked him once if he would take the time and explain to me all those odd things that he sort of changed in ballet, and I was very curious. He wasn't going to tell me in class because [there were] 80 people. So I asked him if he would spend an hour with me. He said 'Naturally, dear. What are you doing on Monday?' And I said 'It's my day off.' He said, 'Now it's no longer your day off.' So we would meet on Monday and I would ask him about all these things, to really slowly explain to me," Martins said.
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