All About Balanchine

Hi everybody!  Today we talk about George Balanchine – one of the genial choreographers of the 20th century.  He is the founder of the New York City Ballet, which embodies his distinctive style. Today we will go into this topic in depth.  I hope you enjoy it.

George Balanchine’s Bio

Before we examine his style and his legacy, we first must establish his roots in order to see where his wonderful ideas come from.  That’s a good tip for life, by the way – if you don’t understand something, take a closer look at its roots and you will start to see the ideas behind it more clearly.

Originally from Russia,  George Balanchine was hired as a choreographer/dancer  by the artistic director, Sergei Diaghilev at the Ballet Russes.  If you don’t know what this is, go read this article!  Later however, when Diaghilev died, this itinerant company ceased to exist.

In the meanwhile, Balanchine had been exposed to some non-ballet American dancers and was intrigued by their natural talent.  This motivated him to further develop dance in this young country and turn it into a ballet hot-spot. He made the bold move of moving to America and founded his own ballet school – the School of American Ballet.

He choreographed a few ballets for the school while the dancers were developing their technique, and then he eventually transformed the graduated dancers into a company, called the New York City Ballet.  He continued choreographing ballets for the company, and hence the system that established the Balanchine technique and repertoire was born.

The Balanchine Style

Balanchine has a very distinct style of dance. This style is incorporated in his dancers via the School of American Ballet.

First off, the quickness!  Almost every ballet he has choreographed is designed to be fast, agile and exciting.  He was, quite clearly, not a big fan of adagios.  There are lots of jumps and lots of fast elements. Emphasis is laid on the musicality and speed of a step.

Which brings us to the point of his dancers’ distinct musicality – it is what makes a Balanchine dancer stand out from the crowd.  They are always on the music!   Famously, the music was the guide to his choreography and it stands out because of the musicality.

“See the music, hear the dance.” -George Balanchine

Other, more technical aspects of the Balanchine style, include the following:

  • The arms are more closed and create a much smaller first position during pirouettes and other turns.  This works with the concept of centrifugal force – the smaller the position, the faster you can turn.
  • All turns spot to the front of the stage, not where you are going.  For example, a piqué and chaîné turn combination going on a diagonal across the floor would have all of the turns spotting the mirror in the front of the room.
  • Quicker movements such as tendus and dégagés are faster and utilized to help improve the dancers’ technique in class especially.  Then, they are sometimes used in ballets choreographed by Balanchine simply to make a statement.
  • Fifth position is emphasized at all times, despite the speed.
  • The hand is held much more open.  If you’ve ever heard the term “the claw,” it is referring to an incorrectly held Balanchine hand.  The hand is more opened than the classical style, yet it is still relaxed and should make a beautiful line.
  • The glissades are characterized by hitting a clear second position in the air.  All jumps, especially in petit allegro, are in fact quicker and more precise. The goal is to hit the end position and sustain it in the air before landing.
  • Pointework is heavily emphasized in Balanchine classes – all dancers must feel natural in their pointe shoes, as if they are an extension of the feet.  Rolling the foot through during a step is really important, as is full articulation of the feet and quiet landings during jumps.  Balanchine achieved this effect with his dancers by having them take entire technique classes in pointe shoes to train their feet.

If you know of any other very specific Balanchine-style preparations that we missed in this list, make sure to leave a comment down below!  We would love to hear from you.

Must-See Balanchine Ballets

Balanchine was the king of plotless ballets – it was the dancer’s job and the music’s job to tell the story.  I am a big fan of plotless as well. It allows you to design the story and literally interpret the music while you are dancing.  This creates an astonishing experience for both the dancer and the audience.

One of my favorite Balanchine ballets ever is Theme and Variations. It’s a short, plotless ballet set to the theme and variations of a longer piece of music.  Below is a great version to watch:

Serenade is another must-see.  The ballet’s premiere while being the first ballet Balanchine every choreographed in America, made quite a statement.  It was originally choreographed for the dancers of the new-founded School of American Ballet, believe it or not.  It is a very iconic and meaningful ballet for major Balanchine companies and his own company, the New York City Ballet.  In fact, the company attached to my ballet school will be performing Serenade this fall, as well as several other significant American repertory ballets If you are in the Grand Rapids area, get tickets here.

I hope that this short-ish post was interesting to you, and it helped you out a bit if you were confused about the basic themes of the Balanchine style and ideas.  I’ll see you on Sunday!

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