George Balanchine demonstrating tendu at the School of American Ballet, 1959 Pictured:
George Balanchine demonstrating tendu at the School of American Ballet, 1959. Balanchine insisted on founding a school as a preparation for creating a company in America, so he could prepare dancers to perform his work at the highest level. (Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Magnum Photos.)

Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, George Balanchine (1904-1983) was the foremost choreographer of the twentieth century and the architect of classical ballet in America. His influence on all aspects of technique, choreographic style, music, costume, lighting, and stage design has been far-reaching; no one has done more to change the look and physique of the female dancer than he, or attain for the choreographer something akin to parity with composer. Balanchine was heir to two great legacies: the Franco-Russian tradition embodied in the works of Marius Petipa and Saint Petersburg's Imperial Ballet, in whose school he trained; and the experimentalist tradition associated with Serge Diaghilev, under whom Balanchine served his choreographic apprenticeship. In 1933 at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein he settled in New York, where they founded the School of American Ballet and, after several unsuccessful attempts, the New York City Ballet. Balanchine choreographed hundreds of ballets. Some were modern in style, others traditional. Many abjured narrative and scenery, and were performed in practice clothes. All revealed his profound understanding of music. His collaboration with Igor Stravinsky resulted in masterworks such as Apollo (1928), Orpheus (1948), and Agon (1957). Through his teaching and choreography, Balanchine extended and refined classical technique. His dancers were known for their speed, clarity, and articulate footwork, all of which now define American classical style.

George Balanchine conferring with Lincoln Kirstein Pictured (right): Balanchine conferring with Lincoln Kirstein, who invited him to co-found a new American ballet company after seeing his choreography in Europe.

Learn more in George Balanchine, an essay by Damien Jack.

An excerpt from Balanchine's Chaconne (1978), created for his muse Suzanne Farrell and his eventual successor Peter Martins. Balanchine's choreography was frequently inspired by the qualities of individual dancers.