Balanchine in Show Biz

George Balanchine (Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze, 1904-1983) is revered as the co-founder (in 1948) and longtime artistic director of the New York City Ballet and the associated School of American Ballet (est. 1934), as well as the “Father of American Ballet”, and (let’s face it) choreographer of The Nutcracker, an annual NYC holiday tradition. But like most major 20th century artists, Balanchine also made his mark in popular show business as well, and was notably instrumental in enhancing the role of the choreographer in musical theatre.

Though born in St. Petersburg, Balanchine’s paternal background was Georgian. His father was an opera singer and composer, co-founder of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre, and briefly the Culture Minister of Georgia. Balanchine was trained in dance from childhood. He defected from the newly-created Soviet Union in 1924 and moved to Paris where he joined Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Balanchine choreographed ballets for this important companythroughout the ’20s, collaborating with the greatest composers, visual artists and dancers of the age. After Diaghilev’s death in 1929, Balanchine worked on West End revues in London, choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet and formed a couple of short-lived companies. He came to the U.S. in 1934.

Often with the involvement of his wife Vera Zorina, Balanchine choreographed over two dozen Broadway shows including the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, the original productions of On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Louisiana Purchase (1940), Cabin in the Sky (1940), and revivals of The Merry Widow (1943), The Chocolate Soldier (1947) and Where’s Charley? (1948). Hollywood movies he worked on included The Goldwyn Follies (1938), the screen version of On Your Toes (1939), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), and Follow the Boys (1944). My wife (the more knowledgeable ballet buff in the house) informs me that he was a big fan of The Nicholas Brothers, and used to travel up to Harlem to watch them dance in night clubs.

Balanchine also staged dances for TV specials like The Seven Lively Arts (1957), an all star production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Flood (1962), and a 1967 ballet version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with music by Mendelssohn. A new version of Noah and the Flood in 1982 was his last ballet for the stage.