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The young American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996), raised in Boston and a graduate of Harvard University, harbored a dream: To establish a ballet company in America, filled with American dancers and not dependent on repertory from Europe. Through Romola Nijinsky, whom Kirstein had assisted in writing a biography of her husband, he met Balanchine after a Les Ballets 1933 performance and outlined his vision. Balanchine was essential to it. Deciding quicky in favor of a new start, Balanchine agreed to come to the United States and arrived in New York in October 1933. "But first, a school," he is famously reported to have said.
Kirstein was prepared to support the idea, and the first product of their collaboration was indeed a school, the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 with the assistance of Edward M.M. Warburg, a Harvard colleague. (The first classes were held January 2.) The School remains in operation to this day, training dancers for the New York City Ballet and companies worldwide. The first ballet Balanchine choreographed in America--Serenade, to Tschaikovsky--was created for students of the School and had its world premiere outdoors at Warburg's summer home near White Plains, New York, in 1934. Within a year, Balanchine and Kirstein had created a professional company, the American Ballet, which made its debut at the Adelphi Theater, New York City, in March 1935. After a handful of summer performances, a projected tour collapsed, but the troupe remained together as the resident ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera. However, Balanchine had no interest in choreographing opera dances, and the Met had little interest in furthering the cause of ballet; in the American Ballet's three years at the Met, Balanchine was allowed just two all-dance programs. In 1936, he mounted a dance-drama version of Gluck's Orfeo and Eurydice, controversial in that the singers were relegated to the pit while the dancers claimed the stage. The second program, in 1937, was, prophetically, devoted to Stravinsky: a revival of Apollo plus two new works, Le Baiser de la Fée and Card Game. It was the first of three festivals Balanchine devoted to Stravinsky over the years.
The fifty-year collaboration of these two creative giants is unique in the 20th century. Stravinsky's description of their work together on Balustrade in 1940 is implicitly a description of their shared vision. He wrote, "Balanchine composed the choreography as he listened to my recording, and I could actually observe him conceiving gestures, movement, combinations, and composition. The result was a series of dialogues perfectly complementary to and coordinated with the dialogues of the music." (In 1972, Balanchine choreographed a new ballet to the same score, Stravinsky Violin Concerto.)
The American Ballet's association with the Met came to an end in 1938 and Balanchine took several of his dancers to Hollywood. In 1941, he and Kirstein assembled another classical company, American Ballet Caravan, for a five-month good-will tour of South America. In the repertory were two major new Balanchine works, Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial (later renamed Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2). But after the tour this company, too, disbanded, and the dancers were forced to find work elsewhere. Between 1944 and 1946 Balanchine was engaged to revitalize Sergei Denham's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo after the departure of Massine. There he choreographed Danses Concertantes (1944), Raymonda, and Night Shadow (later called La Sonnambula, both in 1946), while reviving Concerto Barocco, Le Baiser de la Fée, Serenade, Ballet Imperial, and Card Party (renamed Jeu de Cartes). Many of Balanchine's most important early works were introduced to America at large by the Ballet Russe, which toured the length and breadth of the country for nine months of the year.
George Balanchine teaching.
Courtesy NYCB Archives Ballet Society Collection.
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