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Dance World Celebrates Balanchine Centennial - 2004-02-04


Dance companies around the world are celebrating the centennial of one of the most illustrious U.S. immigrants, George Balanchine, the Russian choreographer who came to the United States in 1933 and soon revolutionized the world of dance. The company he co-founded in 1948, the New York City Ballet, is dedicating two full seasons to exploring Balanchine's legacy.

George Balanchine's reputation in the international world of ballet is so towering that he is referred to simply as Mr. B. Perhaps no choreographer in the history of dance has etched a legacy so deep. When he died in 1983, Balanchine left behind a ballet company that ranks among the very best in the world and a ballet repertory that is performed across the globe.

Peter Martins, the artistic director of the New York City Ballet, says he spent several years thinking of ways to distinguish the centennial from previous salutes to Balanchine. In the end, he decided to divide Balanchine's career in two.

“The first half was the one that spoke about tradition, heritage, the past, all the things that meant something to him, whether they be great composers or great choreographers and where it all started for him,” he said. “Then, of course, the other part, which was what I called the vision.”

The New York City Ballet is calling its winter season "Heritage", focusing on the choreographers and composers who influenced Balanchine's early training and career. It will include some of the handful of story-driven, full-length ballets Balanchine choreographed, including Swan Lake. The winter season also salutes Balanchine's show-business career.

He choreographed more than a dozen Broadway shows and several movies. Award-winning Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman was commissioned to create a new ballet for the centennial.

“We talked about doing something that would be with American music,” she said. “I thought, 'What would be better than doing some Irving Berlin?' I decided to do a full length ballet called Double Feature.”

Double Feature is a ballet in two acts. The first act uses Irving Berlin's music. The second act takes its name from the popular 1920's song Making Whoopie.

Balanchine was classically trained in music and dance. But he was one of the 20th century's leading modernists.

With the New York City Ballet, he created a classically-trained American company whose dancers were known for their exceptional speed, extensions and exuberance. He threw out plots, elaborate sets, and fancy costumes and turned the spotlight on dance.

Peter Martins says the Spring season will center on this aspect of Balanchine's career and on his influence on other choreographers.

“He told me often that one of the things he really wanted to do, more than anything, was to create a lasting classical contemporary ballet repertoire company where you had a great variety of ballets by many different choreographers, not just himself,” he said. “I think that is basically what this celebration is about.”

New York City Ballet officials say they view the centennial as an opportunity to introduce a new generation to Balanchine's genius. Christopher Wheeldon, the company's resident choreographer, represents a new generation of choreographers.

“I think I speak for a lot of my generation within the company,” he said. “To me his message has always been very clear: 'Just create, do not be afraid. Get into a studio with a piece of music and choreograph.”

Balanchine choreographed ballets to music that spanned the centuries, from Johann Bach to George Gershwin. He had a long collaboration with another giant of modernism, Igor Stravinsky. Music director Andrea Quinn calls musical diversity one of the signatures of the Balanchine repertory.

“We all know what a fine musician he was and how eclectic he was in his choice of styles,” she said. “Just in the spring season it is remarkable the diversity of ballets both in terms of nationalities of composers and also the time at which those composers lived.”

The Spring season of 64 ballets will divide into three festivals celebrating European, American, and Russian music. One of the highlights, Peter Martins says, will be a two-night appearance by the Georgian National Dance Company.

“When I was in Russia with Mr. B in 1972 he took me to see that Georgian National Dance Company and I have never seen Balanchine so happy in my life,” he said. “They are coming to do two performances with the New York City Ballet on stage and I can just see him smiling so that is my own little present to Mr. B.”

By the time the centennial year ends, New York City Ballet will have danced 200 different ballets to the music of 40 composers. Balanchine choreographed 54 of the ballets, 42 of them expressly for the company.

At least 60 international companies are performing Balanchine ballets this year. If you are at a dance performance and you see a dancer in leotards flying across a bare stage, you are probably watching a salute to the genius of George Balanchine.