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Twentieth Century Titan

Vail CO, Colorado
Wren Wertin
By Martha Swope
ALL |

In Russia ballet was by turns highly esteemed and encouraged, symbolically offensive, and then celebrated again. George Balanchine studied in the Imperial Ballet School until the Bolshevik Revolution interrupted things. The dancer played piano at cabarets and silent films until he was able to return to school. He defected from Russia for Western Europe and joined the Ballets Russes in 1924, a company made up almost entirely of emigres. Though he started as a dancer, he soon became balletmaster of the company and a dedicated choreographer. In 1933 Balanchine set sail for the United States, where he’s had a lasting impression on the structure and concept of dance. He’s now heralded as the 20th century’s foremost choreographer; Balanchine’s name is synonymous with American dance. Here’s your cheat sheet for all things Balanchine, according to the festival’s artistic director Damian Woetzel:

1: In Russia ballet was by turns highly esteemed and encouraged, symbolically offensive, and then celebrated again. George Balanchine studied in the Imperial Ballet School until the Bolshevik Revolution interrupted things. The dancer played piano at cabarets and silent films until he was able to return to school. He defected from Russia for Western Europe and joined the Ballets Russes in 1924, a company made up almost entirely of emigres. Though he started as a dancer, he soon became balletmaster of the company and a dedicated choreographer. In 1933 Balanchine set sail for the United States, where he’s had a lasting impression on the structure and concept of dance. He’s now heralded as the 20th century’s foremost choreographer; Balanchine’s name is synonymous with American dance. Here’s your cheat sheet for all things Balanchine, according to the festival’s artistic director Damian Woetzel:

2: Balanchine was a man of his time ” and often before it. When he choreographed “Agon” in 1957, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. One year after Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a city bus and the same year Martin Luther King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Balanchine made his own statement. He cast African American principal dancer Arthur Mitchell in the ballet with his caucasian ballerina Diana Adams. The ballet was not an intentional comment on race, but was color blind. The genius of the choreography overtook even the statement made with the casting. It will be performed Monday, July 30.

3: Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky are cultural titans of the 20th century, and are likened to Picasso in that they changed their respective art forms in the same way the painter did. Though their work stands alone, they enjoyed significant collaborations over the course of their careers. Together they created “Agon,” featuring Balanchine’s plotless choreography, a simple stage setting and Stravinsky’s challenging score. Today, 50 years after its premiere, the piece is revered for the ground-breaking art it is.

4: Balanchine choreographed “Nutcracker” to Tchaikovsky’s score in 1954, and it was broadcast nationally later that decade. His “Nutcracker” paved the way for all successive “Nutcracker” performances around the country, giving ballet its own blockbuster. A distinctively seasonal piece, dance companies and schools still rely on it to survive financially.

5: Balanchine finally succeeded in creating a lasting American ballet company in 1948 when he and Lincoln Kirstein founded the New York City Ballet. The company is one of the nation’s finest cultural organizations, and Balanchine’s choreography and teachings are the company’s greatest strength. As a teacher, his methods were copied and his former dancers now run most of the major companies in the U.S., including San Francisco Ballet,

Miami Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet and New York City Ballet.

Balanchine finally succeeded in creating a lasting American ballet company in 1948 when he and Lincoln Kirstein founded the New York City Ballet. The company is one of the nation’s finest cultural organizations, and Balanchine’s choreography and teachings are the company’s greatest strength. As a teacher, his methods were copied and his former dancers now run most of the major companies in the U.S., including San Francisco Ballet,

Miami Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet and New York City Ballet.


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