Who is George Balanchine?

In 1933, Russian choreographer George Balanchine arrived in America and changed the landscape of American dance. Widely recognized as the “father of American ballet,” he drew upon a natural musicality and deep knowledge of classical Russian technique to create classical masterpieces as well as neoclassical works that he felt better reflected the vitality and speed of his new American home.  Balanchine’s unique neoclassical style and prodigious repertory remains widely influential to this day. 

Yuan Yuan Tan, Anthony Vincent: Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto // © Erik Tomasson

Born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg in 1904, George Balanchine (as he became known) was exposed to arts and music from a young age. The child of a composer, he attended the Petrograd Conservatory of Music and the St. Petersburg’s Imperial Theater School, where he studied ballet and graduated with honors. In 1921, Balanchine joined the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Ballet.

In 1924, Balanchine was permitted to leave the Soviet Union to tour Western Europe. He was invited to join Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. There, he became a ballet master and principal choreographer, creating works such as Apollon Musagete (later renamed Apollo) and Prodigal Son

Arts patron Lincoln Kirstein convinced Balanchine to move to the United States. They started by co-founding the School of American Ballet and The American Ballet (later American Ballet Caravan, Ballet Society, and New York City Ballet in 1948). In more than 35 years as artistic director of New York City Ballet, Balanchine created nearly 100 celebrated works, including his “black and white” ballets such as Stravinsky Violin Concerto; beloved productions of The Nutcracker, Coppélia, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and his distinctly classical works like Symphony in C. In addition to his work for New York City Ballet, he choreographed for Broadway, Hollywood, Paris Opera Ballet, and New York City Opera. Throughout his career, he partnered with a host of renowned composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, and Erik Satie.

Dance writer Sheryl Flatow noted, “Although Balanchine never created a work for San Francisco Ballet, his work has been an integral part of the repertory since 1952, when the Company acquired Serenade. Over the years, SF Ballet has danced about 30 of his celebrated works, ballets of infinite variety and invention.”

SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson was invited by George Balanchine in 1970 to join New York City Ballet, where he enjoyed a rich career until 1985, when he came to San Francisco.

At the time of his death in 1983, Balanchine had created more than 400 works and was recognized as the “foremost contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet.” His choreography remains in high demand and is managed by The Balanchine Trust, whose mission is to preserve and protect the integrity and copyright of his choreography. 


George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 is featured on Program 02, Kaleidoscope

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Principal Dancer Vanessa Zahorian on why Balanchine is one of her favorite choreographers of all time.

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