George Balanchine: Bringing World Class Ballet to America.

Posted by on 09.02.2010

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

Lincoln Kirstein was a Harvard undergraduate, who had an undying love for the arts.  He helped create the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art and was a huge fan of Diaghilev.  While visiting Europe in 1933, he had the opportunity to see Apollo, Prodigal Son, and La Chatte.  Kirstein immediately recognized Balanchine’s genius.  On July 11th, Kirstein met with Balanchine and offered to bring him to America.  The plan was to create a ballet school first, followed by a company made up of dancers who had been trained by Balanchine.  It was not until July 16th when Balanchine accepted the offer, saying that going to America had always been his dream.

Balanchine arrived in New York on October 18, 1933.  The ballet school was to be established in Hartford, Connecticut, as suggested by Kirstein’s friend and associate, Chick Austin, who had played a large part in helping bring Balanchine to America.  Balanchine did not like the town, and would later find another location in Manhattan.  The school was to be known as the School of American Ballet.  The name held a huge significance to Balanchine, as he wanted it to be known that he would be working on American ballet, with American dancers, and it would be different than anything the country had seen before.

Bernard Taper’s Balanchine: A Biography
Credit: Anatole Chujoy

The school opened on Madison Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street on January 2, 1934.  Balanchine was to be teaching along-side Pierre Vladimirov (from the Maryinsky Theater) and Dorothy Littlefield (a dancer from Philadelphia).  Some of Balanchine’s first students, would become big names in the ballet world: William Dollar, Lew and Harold Christensen, Gisella Caccialanza, Ruthanna Boris, and Annabelle Lyon.

The dancers that Balanchine came across in America were, as Mr. Kirstein put it, “not sylphides.”  The girls were much more athletic, taller, and longer than the dancers in Europe.  Just as the school was called School of American Ballet, the company to come would be called the American Ballet, as an ode to the new breed of dancers he was finding in this new country.

Balanchine went right to work choreographing with his new students.  His first American ballet would become one of his most famous: Serenade. The choreographic genius put some elements into this ballet that came simply from events in rehearsals; one day one of the girls came in late (which later would become the Waltz girl’s entrance), one girl fell, and another’s hair fell out.  To this day these moments are still captured on stage across the world when this epic ballet is recreated.  It has been said that this was classic Balanchine, he created spontaneously, as if he didn’t need to put any thought in to it.  Martha Graham once said of Balanchine’s creative process, “It’s like watching light pass through a prism.  The music passes through him, and in the same natural yet marvelous way that a prism refracts light, he refracts music into dance.”

Serenade 1935
From left: Annabelle Lyon, Ruthanna Boris, Helen Leitch, Holly Howard, and Elise Reiman. 

Serenade premiered at the Warburg Estate in While Plains, N.Y. on June 10, 1934.  This performance marked the birth of the American Ballet.  John Martin, a dance critic for the New York Times, was not a huge fan.  He said the best thing the American Ballet could do was “to get rid of Balanchine and his European notions, and hire a good American dance man.”  Little did he know, Balanchine would become the most consequential “American dance man” this country has ever seen. (I suspect that he later regretted these words.)

In August, the Metropolitan Opera House teamed up with the American Ballet, making it the Met’s resident company.   This new relationship did not work for Balanchine right from the start, but he understood that it was a good opportunity for the company.  While at the Met between 1935 and 1938, Balanchine created choreography for 13 operas, he set Orpheus and Eurydice, and put together his first Stravinsky festival.  This festival included Jeu de Cartes, Apollo, and Le Baiser de la Fee.

American Ballet had overstayed their welcome at the Met and Balanchine did not leave quietly saying, “The Met is a heap of ruins and every night the stage-hands put it together and make it look like opera.”  Balanchine was not at all worried about his career: he was off to Broadway and Hollywood where he would continue to make a name for himself in America.

Earlier George Balanchine Series posts:


  1. Wonderful Bex. Well done again!

  2. Wonderful! I am so glad to hear that! Keep practicing! Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more to come very soon!

  3. Ms. King: Thank you for your informative blog and tweets. Two of my nieces do ballet and this past year I did a pas de deux class with the older one. It was a lot of hard work but also fun. We worked on parts of six different ballets over the year. Just doing the lifts properly was difficult enough, but then doing that while moving and trying to remember all the steps made it a real challenge. But it was a real sense of accomplishment when we could actually pull it off.

    I look forward to your upcoming posts. Hopefully we will be doing the class again this year and I will be able to impress my partners with something I've learned in your blog.

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