George Balanchine: The Final Road to City Ballet.

Posted by on 11.30.2010

Get the book I am reading: George Balanchine The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb.

In the summer of 1941, Balanchine and Kirstein made plans to lead a goodwill tour throughout Latin America.  The two men created a cast that included thirty-six dancers from the Ballet Caravan, the dissolved American Ballet, and SAB.  The company was out of the country for five months, putting on over one hundred performances for enthusiastic audiences and critics alike.  Balanchine created two major ballets for this tour, Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial, which is also known by the title of the score, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Fred Danieli, Eugene Loring and Lew Christensen
 in “Showpiece”

Barocco is set to the music of Bach’s D Minor Concerto for Two Violins.  Originally the ballet had elaborate sets and costumes, but would be later be simplified to the version we are familiar with today.  Barocco is one of Balanchine’s signature works and is the most performed by companies around the world.  Ballet Imperial is more classical than Barocco, modeled after Petipa’s grand Russian  choreography.  Years after it’s creation, Ruthanna Boris asked Balanchine why he didn’t wish to revive Petipa’s Paquita.  He responded, “Because if we do Paquita, everybody will be able to see what I stole for Ballet Imperial.”

During this time, Balanchine’s marriage to Vera Zorina was deteriorating; she did not participate in the tour to Latin America and by 1943 she was performing at Ballet Theatre.  In January 1946, the two were legally divorced. On April 2nd of the same year she remarried and on October 25th gave birth to her first child.

At the beginning of World War II, while Kirstein was away in the army, Balanchine briefly returned to Broadway and Hollywood, until Serge Denham of Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo approached him with an offer.  The company was failing and Denham understood how valuable Balanchine could be to get the company back on its feet.  Balanchine set Serenade, Concerto Barocco, and Ballet Imperial on the company, much to the dancers’ delight.  He worked with Ballet Russe for two years creating Danses Concertantes to Stravinsky’s score, reviving Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and creating Night Shadow (now known as La Sonnambula).

In 1942 Maria Tallchief joined the Ballet Russe as an apprentice and instantly caught Balanchine’s eye.  He loved her musicality and how she constantly worked to improve her dancing.  One night after a performance, out of the blue, Balanchine asked Tallchief to marry him.  They were married in August of 1946, Balanchine was forty-two and Tallcheif was twenty-one.

When Kirstein returned from the army, he and Balanchine came up with an entirely new kind of company.  It was to be called Ballet Society and tickets would only be made available to subscribers, as opposed to the general public.  Upon the announcement of the company’s creation, eight hundred people subscribed immediately. The company formed quickly, as dancers from the Ballet Caravan, the American Ballet, the Met, and Ballet Russe were eager to be a part of Balanchine’s newest project.  The premier took place in a high school auditorium on November 20th, 1946 with two ballets on the program.  The first was L’Enfant et les sortileges (The Spellbound Child) and the second was none other than The Four Temperaments.  The latter was another Balanchine creation that changed ballet forever, as the choreography consisted of modern movements based on classical steps.  This was another ballet that premiered with elaborate costumes but was later stripped down to simple leotards and tights, becoming the ballet we know and love today.

Ballet Society 1948

In July 1947, Paris Opera commissioned Balanchine to create a ballet for their dancers.  In only two weeks, Symphony in C was born.  When the ballet premiered each movement wore a different color, but a year later, upon it’s premier at Ballet Society, the dancers were outfitted in white and black.  The ballet pleased all audiences, with it’s classical steps and score by Bizet.  Four months later, Balanchine created Theme and Variations on Ballet Theater (which explains the choreographic similarity between this new work and Symphony in C).

In 1948, Ballet Society’s last season, Balanchine collaborated with Stravinsky to create Orpheus.  This ballet was a staple of Balanchine’s repertory until 1964, when New York City Ballet moved to it’s current home at Lincoln Center.  At this time, Ballet Society was performing at City Center to enthusiastic audiences.  City Center’s financial director, Morton Baum, suggested to Kirstein that Ballet Society rename itself the New York City Ballet and make City Center it’s permanent home.  Kirstein responded saying, “If you do that for us, I will give you in three years the finest ballet company in America.”  And they did.

Earlier George Balanchine Series posts:

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