In 1945, poet and dance critic Edwin Denby called George Balanchine the “founder of American ballet as an art,” proclaiming that Balanchine had proved that “ballet can become as native an art here as it did long ago in Russia; and it can develop, as it did there, a native and spontaneous brilliance.” And yet, when Balanchine died in 1983—almost exactly 50 years after arriving in the United States and choreographing his iconic ballet Serenade—many ballet fans wondered if innovation in American ballet had died with him.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t. In fact, his company, New York City Ballet, spawned many of the most important dance makers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including SF Ballet’s own Helgi Tomasson and the two choreographers featured in Bright Fast Cool Blue alongside Balanchine: Benjamin Millepied and Justin Peck, both of whom danced (or in the case of Peck, still dance) at New York City Ballet.
Although each is very different and ultimately unique as a choreographer, you can see Balanchine’s influence on Tomasson, Millepied, and Peck: from the way they each respond carefully to their music, to the jazz-inflected asymmetries that appear in the dancers’ bodies, to the complicated formations and dancing expected of the corps de ballet, to the straightforward attitude of the dancers. And, above all, in their continuous innovation. Their dances are exemplary of what we’ve come to think of as the “American style” that Balanchine created and that contemporary choreographers like Tomasson, Millepied, and Peck continue to develop, adapt, and reinvent.