His audiences were not there to watch a story, or to see forms and ideas taken from life. That was anathema to a man who created over 400 largely plotless ballets, many now lost. Instead they were expected to “see the music, hear the dance”. He did not translate words into dances; for him ballet was its own language – seen, heard and felt on its own terms.


Balanchine was an innovator, a revolutionary. He respected the laws and traditions of ballet even while he broke them. He took Imperial Russia with him when he left for the West; from the rituals of his religion the Russian Orthodox Church, to the Russian writers he read and re-read, his background informed the formal elegance he brought into his ballets. Only he could have created a style of dance that was recognisably classical while thoroughly modern.

Balanchine was born in Imperial Russia, ensconced in all its grand traditions, majesty and aristocratic elegance. At 13 this seemingly eternal world collapsed, replaced by a Soviet one he grew to despise. He trained at the Maryinsky, and was part of a group of dancers permitted to perform abroad with the Ballets Russes. He defected and made a name for himself as a choreographer of the Ballets Russes. The American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, impressed with his choreographic style, asked Balanchine to help him found an American ballet company. When cajoled into returning to the USSR for a tour in the 60’s he became so ill he had to leave. The reality of the USSR did not live up to the Russia that lived in his imagination. The Imperial world of his youth, that so closely informed his choreography, was gone. His religion, his family, and the culture he valued, destroyed. The Soviets, for their part, were more interested in confirming the superiority of Russian-style training than in his innovations.

When the American School of Ballet opened in 1934 the only way for Balanchine to go was, of course, the Russian way. His co-workers were Russian, the language was Russian and the school, later the company also, was run like a miniature Imperial court –  Balanchine, as Tzar, had absolute authority. Devotion and an almost military like discipline was expected of his dancers, all of whom were trained to respect ballet as a set of ethical principles: hard work, precision, humility. He created his own breed of dancers, moulded according to his own ideals and trained in the technique he envisioned, something he could never have done had he stayed in Russia. For example, a pre-Balanchine arabesque had the hips squarely in front with the leg raised behind. Balanchine opened the hips and extended the line, so that it looked not only more beautiful but also dynamic, more a movement than a pose. He demanded precision and clarity; a pointed foot could not be a centimetre out, and endless hours could be spent repeating tondus until every one was precise, all unnecessary movement cut.

Ballet, he said, was tied to fashion, the look of an age, and as such he did not like to revive or remake old ballets. He would always reference the past where necessary, evoke old styles – such as the French in Symphony in C – and he would use old music, from Bach to Tschaikovsky, but he would never dwell on the past.

He equally rejected narrative ballet. “Must everything be defined by words?” He once complained. So while some dances had a plot, none had a story. Symphony in C captured the essence of the French style without relying on sets or costumes to spell it out. Dancers could hide behind a story, and particularly behind sets and costumes, he felt. His dancers were expected to be fully present and thinking, never acting, therefore such things were part of the superfluous, and cut.

Agon (1957) was perhaps his most completely abstract ballet. He called it his “ballet machine”. The stage setting was simply a blue backdrop, the costumes (in what is now considered quintessential Balanchine style) just practice clothes. The movement is at times unlyrical, the dancers catching then departing from the beat. There is constant movement onstage, the choreography is unusual, rhythms shift abruptly, 4 male dancers start and end the ballet – as opposed to the traditional female corps – and the dancers themselves are utterly exposed. There is not even the slightest shred of story or meaning for the dancers or indeed the audience to hide behind. There is only the here-and-now immediacy of the dance.

Nevertheless, Balanchine did not unleash his vision all at once on the USA. Serenade (1935), his earliest work in the USA, is a lush romantic ballet. He also made sure to produce American ballets, such as Western Symphony (1954) which both celebrated and poked fun at the Old West.

The Russian who never lost an ounce of his Russian-ness seems on the surface an unlikely fit for the task of creating a new American ballet tradition. But in Balanchine they found someone who understood ballet inside out, and so knew where to bend and break the rules and where to reinforce them. He had seen others, such as Lopukhov,  try and fail to reinvent ballet. He had witnessed the emergence of modern dance in the West. His strict disciplined technique rooted the new American ballet unquestionably in the traditions of ballet, and his modern style, given free rein in the more liberal USA, combined to found something entirely new: modern ballet. To critics looking for message or meaning in his work Balanchine said “to make the beautiful more beautiful.”  He was unequivocal in this. He firmly but gently detached ballet from story and shifted appreciation from subjective to objective. He remade ballet, gave it its own language, detached from narrative – something to be understood on its own terms.

His New York City Ballet continues to grow from the strong foundations he set, and is rated one of the top in the world. His style, spread by former pupils, has influenced companies across America. His legacy outlives him – his ballets are performed by companies all over the world, including the Maryinsky, where in a sense he has returned home at last.