History Of The New York City Ballet

History Of The New York City Ballet

Feature Photo: lassedesignen / Shutterstock

Founded in 1948 by choreographer George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, and Jerome Robbins, the New York City Ballet is a dance company that has a rich history of delivering more than just one fine performance after another to an audience that keeps coming back for more. Prior to this company’s existence were 1934’s Producing Company of the School of American Ballet, 1935’s American Ballet, 1936’s American Ballet Caravan, and 1946’s Ballet Society. Balanchine served as the General Director until 1989, making excellent use of his skills as a fundraiser and organizer.

About George Balanchine

Before fans of ballet knew anything about George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet, the man behind it all was born in 1904 Georgiy Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, Georgia, of the Russian Empire. He was the son of Georgian opera composer and singer, Meliton Balanchivadze, who also happens to be one of the founders of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre. Balanchine’s reluctant interest in ballet stemmed from his mother, Maria, whose fondness for ballet was also seen as a means of social development among the lower reaches of Georgian society. In 1913, nine-year-old Balanchine was instructed by his mother to audition with his sister, Tamara, and was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School.

Four years later, he spent time at the Mariinsky Theater before it was closed by a government decree in 1917, becoming a property of the state. It reopened in 1918 before it was named in 1920 State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet. Graduating in 1921, Balanchine worked at the State Academic Theater for Opera and Ballet and enrolled himself in the Petrograd Conservatory. In 1923, after graduating from the conservatory, he danced as a member of the corps de ballet until 1924. While still just a teenager, Balanchine began to choreograph, starting with 1920s La Nuit. The school of directors disagreed with Balanchine’s experimental vision but this didn’t stop him from eventually building an ensemble known as Young Ballet.

When George Balanchine and his wife, Tamara Grava, visited Germany in 1924 with the Soviet State Dancers, they fled to Paris to meet with a large Russian community that resided there. At this time, the fame of Balanchine’s choreographic creativity earned him a spot with the Ballets Russes. He was only twenty-one years old at this point. This was also when he’d officially change his name from Georgiy Balanchivadze to George Balanchine. After Ballets Russes went bankrupt, Ballentine resorted to performing stage dances as a means to earn money but was limited due to a knee injury he sustained in 1928.

In 1933, he and Boris Kochno founded Les Ballets 1933 which was financed by British poet, Edward James. This became a short-lived venture when the Great Depression made funding difficult for the arts to continue. Balanchine, however, kept moving forward, taking all the experience he learned with him when he moved to the United States to establish a ballet school.

Ballet Schools

On January 2, 1934, less than three months after George Balanchine arrived in New York City, he teamed up with Lincoln Kirstein and Edward M.M. Warburg to open up the School of American Ballet. Serenade Balanchine’s newest work at the time which performed to the music by Tchaikovsky at Woodlands, the Warburg summer estate. This school officially became the starting point of the New York City Ballet that would establish itself fourteen years later. This same school not only brought forth elite ballet dancers to entertain the local audience but has since performed throughout the American nation as well as the rest of the world. Aspiring dancers wishing to embark on a career in ballet look to the School of American Ballet, hoping to make a big enough impression to join dancing idols such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elizabeth Marie Tallchief.

Between the 1930s and 1940s, Balanchine was noted for his choreographed Broadway musicals such as 1936’s On Your Toes, a performance that featured a tap dancer falling in love with a dance hall girl. Balanchine’s work at the time was seen as unique at the time as it added a plot to a storyline that breathed new life into it. His ability to turn ballet into a more theatrical experience saw him make a move to Hollywood in 1938. While in Hollywood, Balanchine met Vera Zorina, a woman that would become his second wife after performing in five of the movies he created dances for.

From 1944 until 1946, George Balanchine served as a choreographer for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo as a resident while spending time overseas in Europe. When he returned to New York City, the November 20, 1946 performance witnessed the earliest example of an abstract ballet that featured very different styles that would revolutionize the ballet industry as the world knew it at that time. Over time, New York City offered Balanchine and Kirstein a residency at the New York City Center.

Annually, the New York City Ballet features sixty stage performances during the winter and spring seasons at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater and twenty summer season performances at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. NYCB has trained and produced many of the greatest ballet dancers since its formation and still continues doing so to this day.

New York City Ballet Early History

When the New York City Ballet first became established in 1948, the company first headquartered at the City Center of Music and Drama before moving to the New York State Theater. When this move was made, the genius of Balanchine’s creativity reached new heights, working closely with Jerome Robbins, the choreographer of Broadway works fame. This working relationship continued until Balanchine died in 1983. The New York State Theater, now renamed Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, was designed according to Balanchine’s wishes by Philip Johnson. This ballet company later became the first in American history to hold more than one permanent venue location as it not only had its spot at Lincoln Center but at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which is located in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Serving in the mime role of Drosselmeyer, Balanchine’s 1954 version of The Nutcracker has since become an annual staple during the Christmas season in New York City. When referencing the New York City Ballet, The Nutcracker is usually the ballet performance mentioned the most often. Other famous ballets credited to Balanchine include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Agon, Allegro Brilliante, Apollo, Episodes, Firebird, Jewels, Mozartiana, Orpheus, and The Seven Deadly Sins. Among these magnificent ballet performances, Jewels earns its reputation as a difficult dance that needs each ballet dancer to execute rapid footwork and precise movements. In order for this dance to maintain its integrity, not a single performer can afford to make a mistake.

The New York City Ballet performed Salute to Italy in 1960, featuring the premieres of Monumentum pro-Gesualdo and Donizetti Variations, as well as performances of La Sonnambula and Lew Christensen’s Con Amore. In 1968, the New York City Ballet performed this masterpiece before an enthused audience for a second time. The principal dancer at the time was Darci Kistler, who later chose her performance of Monumentum pro-Gesualdo as part of her 2010 farewell tour. The inspiration behind this ballet was to honor the 400th birthday of Prince Carlo Gesualdo of Venosa, who was also the Count of Conza, and was held at the City Center of Music and Drama, New York City.

In 1937, Balanchine first engineered a production for the Stravinsky Festival as the balletmaster of the American Ballet while it was engaged by the Metropolitan Opera. Thirty-five years later, Balanchine offered to produce an eight-day tribute to honor the celebrated composer who had died in 1971. There were twenty-two new works that saw the collaborated efforts from a series of well-known choreographers such as Todd Bolender, Richard Tanner, and John Taras, bringing forth the creations of Duo Concertant, Pulcinella, Symphony in Three Movements, and Violin Concerto.

George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet

As a tribute to Maurice Ravel, a French composer whom George Balanchine had great admiration for, the New York City Ballet performed Hommage a Ravel for two weeks in 1975, allowing the audience to witness the brilliant dance performances of Jacques d’Amboise and John Taras. In 1981, another two-week festival courtesy of Balanchine and NYCB honored Russia’s Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky, including a change in Balanchine’s 1933 choreography of Mozartiana. The stage design, combined with the lighting served as a magnificent display that featured a variety of configurations that were nothing short of awesome.

In 1982, there was a twenty-five ballad performance to celebrate the centennial of Igor Stravinsky, a long-time friend, and collaborator of George Balanchine. This tribute saw three new ballets brought forth by Balanchine that would serve as his final contribution before his death. Elegie, Persephone, and Tango were the three, along with a newer version of his previous work, Variations.

In 1978, signs of George Balanchine’s ability to keep up as a dancer observed he began to have balancing issues. Unknown at the time, he was experiencing the effects of Creutzfelt-Jakob disease. It was only after the date of his death on April 30, 1983, that was it discovered this was the reason behind his deteriorating health. Upon the same night as his death, the New York City Ballet kept its scheduled performance for the evening at the Lincoln Center. Balanchine’s resume as a choreographer has 465 works to his credit and holds his place as one of the godfathers of the ballet industry. To this day, the teaching technique that first became an essential curriculum at the School of American Ballet still continues today. In 1988, five years after his death, George Balanchine was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and had a 2002 fiftieth anniversary celebration to honor him and his works.

New York City Ballet After Balanchine

A year after the death of George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the New York State Theater on April 26. This program began with Igor Stravinsky’s Fanfare for a New Theater before shifting to Stravinsky’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner. The works of Balanchine also saw Serenade, Sonatine, and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, as well as Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. The key performers in the 1984 celebration featured some of the best-known ballet dancers in the industry, including Lourdes Lopez and Heather Watts.

As memorable as this even was, the New York City Ballet would experience a thirty-year struggle that clearly witnessed the new balletmaster, Peter Martins, not share the same creative genius George Balanchine had become so well known for. While Martins had no trouble making sure NYCB continued as one of the most prominent ballet companies in the industry, he met with criticism for his inability to maintain the exquisite style illustrated by Balanchine. Not for a lack of trying, when the fortieth anniversary of the New York City Ballet came about in 1988, Martins held the American Music Festival that featured the works of several commissioned choreographers, as well as material from Balanchine and Robbins.

To the credit of Peter Martins, this is the same man behind the creation of City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute. He, along with Irene Diamond, founded its program in 2000 that provides choreographers with dancers, studio space, and fundraising that later saw a June 14, 2009 Dancers’ Choice emergency funding benefit. Unfortunately for Martins, he opted to take a leave of absence from the New York City Ballet after his name was caught in a sexual misconduct scandal that not only threatened the man’s career but his reputation as an upstanding American citizen. There were five NYCB ballet dancers who came forward with allegations Martins had abused them physically and verbally. As of January 1, 2018, Martins opted to retire from his post with the New York City Ballet.

Also in 2018, the New York City Ballet again came face to face with a scandal when Alexandra Waterbay filed a civil action suit against principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. Waterbay used to be the girlfriend of NYCB’s principal dancer, Chase Finlay. Although not a case that has been closed yet, the scandal was enough for Finlay to resign while Ramasar and Catanzaro were fired. Although April 2019 saw Ramasar and Catanzaro reinstated, only Ramasar opted to rejoin the New York City Ballet.

New York City Ballet Orchestra

Behind every great dance performance is the music that can take the presentation from ordinary to extraordinary. The New York City Ballet Orchestra has served as an important contributor to the New York City Ballet. Currently, the sixty-six members of the orchestra have the most versatile performances that feature a repertoire that goes well above the expectations of a symphony. The principal players of the orchestra perform most of the concerts, solos, and chamber music as well as accompanying the ballet as it tours North American venues. When touring internationally, the New York City Ballet has been known to use local orchestras of whatever region it is they’re visiting but there have been some members from the NYCB Orchestra to tag along as soloists and extras.

New York City Ballet Today

Currently, Jonathan Stafford is the artistic director that has taken over the direction of the New York City Ballet as of 2019. He was a principal dancer for the company until he retired in 2014. It was also the same year he married fellow NYCB dancer, Brittany Pollack. In 2017, he became the next ballet master before taking over the helm as New York City Ballet’s director of artistic operations. He, along with the music director as of 2015, Andrew Litton, has taken the lead to carry on the legacy of George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet.


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