George Balanchine was a Georgian-American ballet dancer and one of the foremost choreographers of the 20th century. Regarded as the founder of American ballet, he established and led the New York City Ballet for more than three decades.
Balanchine was born Georgy Melitonovich Balanchivadze, the son of Meliton Balanchivadze, a noted Georgian composer who later became the Culture Minister of the first Georgian Democratic Republic. Young Balanchine studied piano with his father from the age of 5. In 1913, he was admitted in the ballet class of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. In 1914, he made his stage debut with the Mariinsky Imperial Ballet as Cupid in "The Sleeping Beauty" ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In 1921, he graduated as a classic ballet dancer. He also studied piano and composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. From 1921-24, he was a dancer with the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Petrograd (St. Petersburg).
In 1924, he emigrated from Russia together with his first wife, ballerina Tamara Geva, whom he wed in 1923. That same year auditioned for and was hired as a dancer by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his "Russian Ballet". A knee injury forced him to quit dancing, and Diaghilev employed him as a choreographer. From 1924-29 he created nine major ballets as well as choreographing smaller productions. He choreographed such ballets as "L'Enfant et les Sortileges" by Maurice Ravel, "Apollon Musagete" and "Le Chant du Rossignol" by Igor Stravinsky, in which he introduced then 14-year-old Alicia Markova.
After Diaghilev's death, Balanchine had a few uncertain years. He played a cameo role as a dancer in Dark Red Roses (1929) with Lydia Lopokova, a former Diaghilev ballerina. After a brief stint with the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Balanchine moved to Monte Carlo. There, from 1930-33, he choreographed three ballets for "Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo", starring Tamara Toumanova. At that time he collaborated with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil. In 1933, he formed "Les Ballets" with Boris Kochno, Diaghilev's last private secretary, and made performances in London. There he was met the young American impresario Lincoln Kirstein, who invited him to start a ballet company in New York. Balanchine said, "Yes. But first, a school", and came to New York at the end of 1933. There he co-founded the School of American Ballet, which opened its doors on January 2, 1934.
In 1935, he co-founded the American Ballet, which became the resident company of the Metropolitan Opera for a few years until their separation from the Opera in 1938. Balanchine took his dancers to Hollywood. There he promoted his second wife, Vera Zorina, to several leading roles and worked as ballet choreographer in The Goldwyn Follies (1938), On Your Toes (1939), We Are Not Alone (1939), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Follow the Boys (1944). In 1946, Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein founded the Ballet Society, renamed the "New York City Ballet" in 1948. It became the most innovative ballet company in the world. He choreographed the five-part series Great Performances: Dance in America (1976) for PBS and the film The Turning Point (1977).
In Christmas 1954, Balanchine staged "The Nutcracker" by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and started the tradition of seasonal performances of this classic ballet. His choreography was re-created for the 1993 film version of the production, The Nutcracker (1993). Balanchine and New York City Ballet made a home in the New York State Theater building at Lincoln Center, designed by Philip Johnson, in 1964. The new home for Balanchine's ballet was commissioned and funded with the help of Kirstein, who served as the general director of Balanchine's ballet company from 1933-89. Their work was documented from 1933-55 by photographer George Platt Lynes. Their friends and collaborators were Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, Pavel Tchelitchev, Cecil Beaton, Alexandra Danilova and many others.
Balanchine was married four times, all to ballerinas; he also had common-law relationships, but remained childless. He died in New York on April 30, 1983, and was laid to rest in Oakland Cemetery, Sag Harbor, New York.