Balanchine as a Craftsman
Balanchine did not see himself as a genius or even a creator of ballets, but rather as a disciplined craftsman whose job it was to select the right pieces to put together. He was known to say, “God creates, I assemble.”
When discussing his choreography for the ballet Agon, Balanchine wrote:
“Just as a cabinetmaker must select his woods for the particular job at hand…so a ballet carpenter must find dominant quality of gesture, a strain or palette of consistent movement, an active scale of flowing patterns which reveals to the eye what Stravinsky tells the sensitized ear.”
George Balanchine (pronounced BAH-lahn-sheen), has been called a genius. He’s been referred to as “the father of American ballet.” Some go so far as to say he was the greatest choreographer of all time. Never heard of him? Read on!
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1904, Balanchine made the United States his adopted homeland in 1933. Before traveling to America, he enjoyed success in France as a choreographer for the Ballet Russe, an innovative company managed by Serge Diaghilev (SER-gay DEE-ah-gih-lef). Balanchine was exposed to many of the leading European artists of the day during his tenure with Diaghilev’s company.
Balanchine arrived in New York City at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein, a philanthropist who wanted to establish a ballet company in the United States. At the time ballet was not popular among American audiences, but Kirstein believed the art form could take root and flourish on American soil.
Balanchine and Kirstein established two ballet institutions that are still with us today: The School of American Ballet, which trains young dance professionals, and the New York City Ballet, one of the leading professional dance companies in the world.
During his lifetime, Balanchine choreographed a whopping 465 dances! While many have been lost, those that remain are an important part of the repertory of the New York City Ballet, and are performed by companies all over the globe.
“The composer creates time,
and we have to dance to it.”
Balanchine and Music
Balanchine’s understanding of music was vital to his choreography approach. He began playing the piano at age five and dreamed of becoming a composer like his father. After graduating from the Imperial Ballet School, Balanchine attended the Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg.
Balanchine was proficient in reading and understanding the structure of musical scores and, as a result, was able to use them as a blueprint for his choreography. His movement is never an exact illustration of the music, but rather an interpretation that compliments the rhythm, quality, and density of the score.
Balanchine collaborated with several accomplished composers, including Igor Stravinsky (EE-gawr struh-VIN-skee), who composed music specifically for several of Balanchine’s ballets.
Balanchine primarily chose to work with American dancers and those he trained himself rather than importing seasoned stars from other countries. Why?
- Russian dancers were taught to be theatrical and demonstrative. While this was an asset in story ballets, it was not as useful for Balanchine’s plotless dances. Some say he devised these ballets in order to make movement that looked good on his less theatrical American dancers.
- He worked with a “no-star” system. Everyone was paid the same, and names were listed alphabetically in concert programs. While there were soloists in the company, including those he created dances for, he didn’t want their “star status” or egos to affect their dancing. Foreign stars would have expected preferential treatment.
- By taking on students from his school into the company, he could be sure that they would be trained to dance the way he wanted, with speedy footwork and a sharp attack.
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Classical AND Modern? Elements of Balanchine’s Style
Even though Agon was choreographed more than 50 years ago, you may be surprised by how modern it still looks. Why? Because the way Balanchine used classical ballet—a traditional form of court dancing nearly 400 years old—was nothing short of revolutionary.
Balanchine broke apart ballet conventions, turning them upside down. The innovations visible in Agon exemplify elements of Balanchine’s approach and style. Watch for:
- how the ballet begins with four men, backs facing the audience, rather than with the standard corps de ballet or group of dancers, as in traditional works. The ballet ends with the same image. The corps of ballet in Balanchine’s dances was not just used as a frame for the action of the principal dancers, but also demonstrated complex choreography.
- how the 12 dancers are dressed in simple black and white leotards and tights. Balanchine did away with costumes and sets in many of his ballets in order to focus attention on the dancers’ movement. Balanchine’s later modernist ballets came to be known as his “Black and White” works because of the simple costumes that reflect their austere minimalism.
- the absence of characters or narrative. Even though the word “agon” means contest or struggle in Greek, the dancers do not act out a conflict. The subject of the dance is the movement itself. Balanchine called this kind of ballet “plotless.” He referred to the ballet Agon as “a machine, but a machine that thinks.”
- the way Balanchine redefines classical ballet choreography and makes it modern. The men swing their arms, flex their feet, and walk on their heels. The women dance on pointe, like classical ballerinas, but their off-balance movements are more dynamic. Instead of striving for static poses, lifts, or held positions, Balanchine’s choreography emphasizes quick transitions creating dynamic phrases, changes of weight, jutting hips, and angular shapes.
For Balanchine, the use of classical ballet technique was not a constriction, but a liberation. The positions and steps were a springboard for experimentation in Agon and throughout his career. Ballet technique gave his dancers strength and clarity and allowed him to present an idealized vision of reality inhabited by beautiful, precise, graceful, and elegant beings.
Agon demonstrated that ballet could be just as inventive and experimental as other art forms. Balanchine radically redefined ballet from the inside— not by attacking the tradition it came from,but by using that tradition to create something no one had ever witnessed before. The dance critic Alistair McCauley says that many who saw the first performance of Agon were struck by how the music and movement created an impression of “shapes, phrases, rhythms and sounds that hadn’t been encountered before, but embodied New York modernism itself.”
Anyone interested in American ballet will learn about Balanchine. As Stravinsky said, “A choreographer such as Balanchine is the rarest of beings.” Not only did he play a major part in helping ballet take root in the United States, but he redefined ballet by stripping it of a dependence on narrative and spectacle and presenting it in a pure, classical form.
Because of his influence, and the incredible number of dances he choreographed, there is a lot out there about him. If you’d like to know more, you may want to:
- Watch the video of Agon (Part 1, Part 2). After viewing it, take note of the following:
- How the work is made up of small sections, pieced together, like a mosaic. There are duets, trios, and pas de quatres (sections for four dancers). Balanchine chose 12 dancers to perform to Stravinsky’s music, which was made on a 12-tone scale. Just as Stravinsky used both major and minor keys (white and black) in his piano music, so Balanchine used black and white costumes on his dancers.
- Even though Agon is plotless, it is impossible to remove it from the historical context in which it was created. The original cast included a pas de deux for Arthur Mitchell, a black man, and Diana Adams, a white woman. In 1957, when the ballet was choreographed, this inter-racial duet would have been shocking to the audience and was probably interpreted as a political statement. Audiences would also have noticed that the ballet begins and ends with Mitchell and three white male dancers, all equal, with no distinction made between them.
- At one point in the choreography, the male dancer manipulates his partner, moving her body into different positions as if she were a doll. Some feel this may connect to a personal event in Balanchine’s life. One year before he created Agon, his wife and former dancer with his company, Tanaquil Le Clercq, was paralyzed from the waist down at the height of her career from polio. He took a long leave from the company to care for her, and created Agon when he returned. The work was previewed at a benefit for the March of Dimes.
- Visit the New York City Ballet website (http://nycballet.com). There you can find personal information about Balanchine and can read about the history of the company and the school he founded with Lincoln Kirstein.
- Check out the Balanchine Foundation website (http://balanchine.org). Here you can see pictures of him and his choreography, find a list of his other works, and learn about the musicals he choreographed for Hollywood.
- Go to the Balanchine Trust website (http://balanchine.com) to learn more about how his ballets are being preserved, and how dance companies can get permission and help to mount his choreography with their dancers.
- Balanchine received a Kennedy Center Honor award in 1978. You can visit this the Kennedy Center site to read about the award here. Suzanne Farrell Ballet, a resident company at the Kennedy Center, works to revive many of Balanchine’s works that are rarely presented. Click on kennedy-center.org/programs/ballet/farrell/biography.cfm to read about Farrell’s company. Check out her notes on ballet, often concerning Balanchine, who was inspired by her.