George Balanchine: the choreographer who made elephants dance in tutus

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He was the creator of the New York City Ballet. And with Igor Stravinsky they wrote a play for 50 of those animals. A documentary about him will be seen.

To close the Celebrity Gallery cycle that it held throughout the year, the Argentine Dance Council will broadcast this Friday a documentary dedicated to three ballet figures linked to the famous Ballets Russes and who also coincided, with different characteristics, in some kind of artistic link with the Colón Theater Ballet. They were Leonide Massine, George Balanchine and Tamara Grigorieva.

However, the weight and importance of George Balanchine in the history of dance in the 20th century is so great that it is particularly worth dwelling on. He was born in Russia in 1904 and studied at the Imperial Ballet Academy in Saint Petersburg. At just 19 years of age and with a small company for which he created his first works, he embarked on a European tour until he reached Paris and even Serguei Diaghilev himself, the great businessman of the Ballets Russes (a company that had debuted in Paris in 1909 and that paradoxically he never danced in Russia). Diaghilev, a great talent hunter, hired him as a choreographer.

In 1933 Balanchine settled in New York and there he developed his long and fruitful career. In 1948 he created the New York City Ballet.

What distinguishes you from other 20th century choreographers and gives you your unique stature? Balanchine brought together the heritage of the Russian academic ballet – he said that Marius Petipa was his spiritual father – with something of the avant-garde of the first Soviet period and much of the modernism that was the hallmark of the Diaghilev Ballets. He never broke with the tradition of classical ballet – as Martha Graham and other figures of modern dance did – but he reinvented this language giving it a perceptible contemporaneity. As never before in dance, he considered that a choreography should arise simply from a musical source: he was not particularly interested in creating works that told a story but rather that the spectator, he said, “could listen to the dance and see the music”.

He created ballets from scores of many composers, but his longest and closest collaboration was with Igor Stravinsky. Together they conceived over thirty ballets … including a piece for elephants. The story is this: in 1941 the Ringling Brothers Circus hired Balanchine to create a dance piece for their elephants; the choreographer then called Stravinsky, who was in Los Angeles: “Would you like to do a little ballet with me, maybe a polka?”

“For whom it is?” Stravinsky answered.

“For some elephants.”

What age?

“Very young.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then Stravinsky said gravely: “Okay; if they are young, I accept ”.

Circus Polka it premiered in 1942 at Madison Square Garden with a troupe of fifty elephants conveniently dressed in tutus.

Let’s go back to Balanchine in Buenos Aires. The same year as the premiere of Circus Polka with a contract to mount two works with the Ballet del Colón. He was thirty-eight years old at that time and although he was already a highly admired choreographer, he was in a difficult professional moment. The projects that had brought him to the United States encountered successive dead ends; His company, the American Ballet, had reached a very high point with the Stravinsky Festival in 1937, but the following year the ensemble disbanded for lack of financial support.

Balanchine began, amid other occasional engagements, to create choreography for Hollywood musicals and Broadway comedies. Let’s just say it briefly: he detested these kinds of jobs, which he did with great success, but little enthusiasm for nearly a decade. It was towards the middle of that period that he traveled to Buenos Aires with two assembly projects: his Apollo Musagète and an absolute premiere on a Mozart concert.

There is something poignant about these decisions made at such a particular time in your professional life. On the one hand, the choice to bring to Buenos Aires a very significant work in its choreographic production as it was Apollon, the second choreography created by Balanchine on music by Stravinsky. On the other hand, the interest in creating a new work with a cast like the Ballet del Colón, totally unknown to him.

Notable paradox: Balanchine, undoubtedly one of the greatest and most influential choreographers in ballet history, regarded his creative work as a mere craft. He rejected the qualifications that others gave him and preferred to define himself as a craftsman, someone who simply made dance a profession. He used to compare himself to a chef, “whose job,” he said, “is to prepare for a precise clientele a variety of attractive dishes that will delight and amaze their palates.”

And in this same line of culinary analogy, and referring to the years that he was forced to work in the commercial scene, he also commented: “I am like a potato; a potato is something quite crude, which can grow anywhere. But even a potato has a soil in which it can grow better. My floor is ballet”.

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