George Balanchine is acclaimed the world over as one of the greatest choreographers in the history of ballet. OBT’s Celebrating Balanchine program offers a glorious spectrum of his art. In this blog, we offer a beyond-the-ballet picture of this creative genius, known to those who worked with him as Mr. B.
Giorgi Mellitonovitch Balachivadze didn’t take to ballet right away. He began his studies at age nine, at the Czar’s Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. He was so unhappy that he ran away. With his debut at age ten, as a cupid in the Maryinsky Theatre Ballet Company production of The Sleeping Beauty, performing won him over.
Partly out of economic necessity during his early years in the United States, Balanchine made choreography for Broadway and Hollywood musicals, and for elephants in the circus. He even got his cat Mourka leaping like a dancer.
Ray Bolger, film dancer and star from the 1930s through the 1970s, wrote, “Working with Balanchine was like spinning from Juilliard to the Louvre to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to Stillman’s Gymnasium.”
Mr. B was an accomplished musician. In addition to his ballet training, he studied piano, music theory, composition and harmony at the Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg. On occasion, he composed music (Christopher Stowell used one of Balanchine’s piano pieces in his ballet Tolstoy’s Waltz), and sometimes prepared piano reductions of orchestral scores for music he intended to choreograph. He loved and respected music.
Balanchine married his creative muses, formally marrying and divorcing four times, and living for an extended period with another “wife.”
Biographer Bernard Tapir wrote that, “Balanchine liked science fiction, TV westerns, French sauces and American ice creams. He wore a sort of Russianized version of a Wild West dude’s garb—bright, pearl-buttoned shirts, black string tie, gambler’s plaid vest, frontier pants. On him, these surprising outfits appeared natural and elegant.”
Friend and physician Edith Langer wrote of Mr. B, “His love of cooking was famous. I sat with him once where there was a salesman for Cuisinart, who tried to give George one of these efficient machines. He was unimpressed. He explained that he enjoyed chopping. He ironed his own shirts. His joy in all the ordinary tasks of life was part of his charm.”
Edward Gorey, illustrator and cartoonist perhaps best known these days for his animated introduction to the PBS Mystery series, was an avid fan of Balanchine’s choreography. Gorey attended New York City Ballet performances with devout regularity until Mr. B’s death, then never returned.