George Balanchine: The Georgian-American Ambassador of Dance to Music

On a dim spring day, when a bit of rain and a breeze mix with the smell of freshly-awakened flowers, a certain melancholy engulfs my mind. It’s at this time that there are some things you simply have to do. I’ve tried movie-like walks in the rain; learning yet another sad song on a guitar; giving The Notebook one more shot to understand how it became a cult movie – no luck, I might have to do it again. Yet, nothing has matched the concept of a dull spring day like Apollo, composed by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by George Balanchine.

The ballet sees Apollo, the Greek God of music, poetry, archery and dance, being visited and instructed by three Muses: Calliope, Muse of poetry; Polyhymnia, Muse of mime; and Terpsichore, Muse of dance and song. However, when you’re watching this 30-minute-long ballet, you are least interested in the plot. It is the “brief work of rare beauty,” as The Seattle Times once wrote, that takes you in. It’s the beauty of Stravinsky’s composition, the graceful movement of the dancers, the costumes once created by Coco Chanel, and, for me personally and above all, the pride in knowing that the great creator of this translation of music into dance was Georgian. That Georgian pride of mine. The pride Georgians are not granted too often since the Western press usually credits him as a Russian-American.

When Balanchine was born into a Georgian family in Saint Petersburg of the Russian Empire, Georgia was just a mere part of it. There are many Georgians who are ‘robbed’ of their nationality in the eyes of the world due to the same reason. George Balanchine should be widely known as a Georgian Who Has Influenced The Modern World.

So, on another dull spring day, having just re-watched Apollo, having neglected the idea of trying The Notebook again, I sat down to write this piece.

According to Balanchine himself, his “genes and blood were Georgian, but his ethnicity was a Saint Petersburger.” It was his father’s DNA – the genes of a great Georgian composer, and one of the founders of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre, Meliton Balanchivadze – that drew him to the fascinating world of the musical arts, resulting in him becoming the best ballet master of the 20th century. 

Born in 1904, into a highly music-oriented family of a renowned composer as a father, and a mother who excelled at playing the piano, George Balanchine (né Giorgi Balanchivadze) first tried his luck with the piano at the age of five. When he was nine, he was already taking ballet classes and by the time he was fourteen, he had fallen in love so much with the exquisite dance that he refused to move back to Georgia, like the rest of the Balanchivadzes did, finding it harder to part with ballet than his family. He would only see his younger brother, Andrea, 45 years later, when he returned to the USSR with the New York City Ballet troupe.

At 17, Balanchine was already a member of the corps de ballet in the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company. At the same age, he started staging works both for the company and elsewhere, experimenting with new ideas that would later become a neo classical movement. These experiments went against the Romantic anti-classicism, the overdone theatricality of which disturbed Balanchine. Just as the Soviet censure was about to cut down Balanchine’s artistic potential to fit the view of the regime, in 1924 Balanchine, along with three other dancers, left for a tour of Western Europe. He then became a member of the Ballets Russes in Paris and it would not be long until he was invited to replace Bronislava Nijinska as its ballet master. Balanchine soon suffered a knee injury, limiting him as a danseur and encouraging him to fully commit to the art of choreography. After the Ballets Russes was dissolved in 1929, Balanchine and his talents travelled all over Europe. Establishing himself in Europe turned out not to be that easy, but it was not like he had to play the piano at nightclubs and cabarets in order to feed himself, which he was left with no other choice but to do back in the Soviet Union.

At the age of 29, Balanchine formed Les Ballets 1933 in Paris, which would only run for one season as Balanchine got an offer from Boston-born dance connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein, to travel to the United States and establish an American ballet company. As a result of this collaboration, first came the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 and 14 years later, the New York City Ballet, with its Concerto Barocco, Orpheus and Symphony In C dancing program. Balanchine did not understand the point of retiring – much like his dancers, who did not merely want to dance, but had to dance – the great ballet master had to choreograph. So, from the NYCB formation until his death, Balanchine was the artistic director of the facility, leading the choreography of most of the company’s production. The most popular of them all, perhaps, would be The Nutcracker, which is not only note-worthy because it is simply amazing, but because it also restated the view of American public, ensuring it was kept inside the hearts of the American people so much so, that since then, The Nutcracker has been an integral part of American Christmas celebrations. Balanchine’s mother, Maria Vasilyeva, saw ballet as a form of social advancement; with her son’s production of the Nutcracker, she turned out to be right.

A man of vast talents, in addition to ballet, Balanchine also worked in theatre and on movies, choreographing a number of musical comedies, including On Your Toes and Babes in Arms. He has also been credited to have re-created some of his works for TV, like L’enfant et les Sortileges, adding animation to the piece. 1974’s choreography of Coppelia secured Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova an Emmy nomination.

Both his life and death were filled with Balanchine’s love for ballet – all of his many partners were ballerinas, and he made sure in his will that his earthly possessions would be left to his troupe of ballerinas.

In addition to Balanchine’s direct legacy, he is immortalised in space – one of the 23 craters on Mercury was named after George Balanchine, as its unusual blue visual reminded astronomers of the famous blue tutus in Balanchine’s Serenade.

I’m not sure about space, but Balanchine did have a different sense of time. He used to say that there is no past, nor future, only the present. That is exactly what one sees in his ballet – beauty, now.

By Nini Dakhundaridze