Biography (continued)

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In 1970, U.S.News and World Report attempted to summarize Balanchine's achievements: "The greatest choreographer of our time, George Balanchine is responsible for the successful fusion of modern concepts with older ideas of classical ballet. Balanchine received his training in Russia before coming to America in 1933. Here, the free-flowing U.S. dance forms stimulated him to develop new techniques in dance design and presentation, which have altered the thinking of the world of dance.

George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky, 1957 rehearsal of Agon.
Credit: Martha Swope TimePix.

Often working with modern music and the simplest of themes, he has created ballets that are celebrated for their imagination and originality. His company, the New York City Ballet, is the leading dance group of the United States and one of the great companies of the world. An essential part of the success of Balanchine's group has been the training of his dancers, which he has supervised since the founding of his School of American Ballet in 1934. Balanchine chose to shape talent locally, and he has said that the basic structure of the American dancer was responsible for inspiring some of the striking lines of his compositions. Balanchine is not only gifted in creating entirely new productions, . . . his choreography for classical works has been equally fresh and inventive. He has made American dance the most advanced and richest in choreographic development in the world today."

Balanchine himself wrote, "We must first realize that dancing is an absolutely independent art, not merely a secondary accompanying one. I believe that it is one of the great arts. . . . The important thing in ballet is the movement itself. A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle . . . is the essential element. The choreographer and the dancer must remember that they reach the audience through the eye. It's the illusion created which convinces the audience, much as it is with the work of a magician." Balanchine always preferred to call himself a craftsman rather than a creator, comparing himself to a cook or cabinetmaker (both hobbies of his), and he had a reputation throughout the dance world for the calm and collected way in which he worked with his dancers and colleagues.

As his reputation grew, he was the recipient of much official recognition. In the spring of 1975, the Entertainment Hall of Fame in Hollywood inducted Balanchine as a member, in a nationally televised special by Gene Kelly. The first choreographer so honored, he joined the ranks of such show business luminaries as Fred Astaire, Walt Disney, and Bob Hope. The same year, he received the French Légion d'Honneur. In 1978, he was one of five recipients (with Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, Richard Rodgers, and Artur Rubinstein) of the first Kennedy Center Honors, presented by President Jimmy Carter. He was also presented with a Knighthood of the Order of Dannebrog, First Class, by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. In 1980, Balanchine was honored by the National Society of Arts and Letters with their Gold Medal award, the Austrian government with its Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Letters, First Class, and by the New York Chapter of the American Heart Association with their "Heart of New York" award. These joined such earlier commendations as the French Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters decoration and the National Institute of Arts and Letters award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. The last major award Balanchine received--in absentia--was the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983, the highest honor that can be conferred on a civilian in the United States. At the time, President Ronald Reagan praised Balanchine's genius, saying that he has "inspired millions with his stage choreography . . . and amazed a diverse population through his talents." Soon after, on April 30, 1983, George Balanchine died in New York at the age of 79.

Clement Crisp, one of the many writers who eulogized Balanchine, assessed his contribution: "It is hard to think of the ballet world without the colossal presence of George Balanchine. . . . Now he is gone and, as Lincoln Kirstein said in his brief and infinitely apt curtain speech, 'Mr. B. is with Mozart and Tschaikovsky and Stravinsky.' But we have not lost Balanchine-not the essential Balanchine, who lives in the great catalogue of masterpieces that have so shaped and refined our understanding of ballet and given it-and us-thrilling life. And we are not without the other essential fact of his work: his School and the training system that has tuned American bodies as the ideal classical medium for his ideal classic vision. We can never be without Balanchine. He is so central to the danse d'école in our century, so surely its guiding force, that grief becomes mere self-indulgence. Gratitude and joy must be our feeling for what he gave us, and determination that his work and ideals be honored and preserved and used to illuminate the future of ballet."

--reprinted, with emendations, by courtesy of the New York City Ballet

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