Balanchine and Boston Ballet—a lasting legacy - Boston Ballet

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Balanchine and Boston Ballet—a lasting legacy


George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco ©The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor

George Balanchine, “father of American ballet,” has been with Boston Ballet every (en pointe) step of the way. From birth to today, his mark is indelible.

Seo Hye Han and Patric Palkens in George Balanchine’s Coppélia. ©The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Ji Young Chae, Lawrence Rines, and Irlan Silva in George Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.2. © The George Balanchine Trust.

Photo credit: Rachel Neville Photography

George Balanchine is perhaps best known for co-founding New York City Ballet. Invited to America in 1933 by young arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, the pair first established the School of American Ballet followed by the company, where Balanchine served as artistic director for more than 35 years. Ever prolific, Balanchine choreographed more than 450 ballets in his lifetime.

But what many don’t know is that Balanchine also had a special relationship with Boston Ballet founder, E. Virginia Williams. Thanks to his recommendation, her fledgling company got the grant that enabled it to become Boston Ballet, the first professional ballet company in New England.


George Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1904. At the age of nine, he was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School. After graduation, he danced with the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company, where he began choreographing short works in his teenage years. In 1924, while on a tour of Western Europe, he defected from the newly formed Soviet Union. Balanchine was invited by impresario Serge Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes, an itinerant ballet company based in Paris, and it was here that he began choreographing some of his earliest important works: Apollo (1928) and Prodigal Son (1929). Ballet Russes promoted ground-breaking artistic collaborations among artists at the forefront of their respective fields. The young Balanchine worked with composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and Erik Satie.

After Diaghilev’s death, the Ballets Russes disbanded in 1929. It was then that Balanchine met young American arts connoisseur Lincoln Kirsten who persuaded him to come to the U.S. Together they founded the School of American Ballet (SAB) in 1934 and Ballet Society in 1946, which was renamed New York City Ballet (NYCB) in 1948 when it moved to New York City Center. His first ballet choreographed in the U.S. (and now one of his most well-known), SERENADE, to music by Tchaikovsky, was created for SAB students and premiered in 1934.  Affectionately referred to as “Mr. B.,” Balanchine served as NYCB’s artistic director from 1948 until his death in 1983.

George Balanchine's Serenade ©The George Balanchine Trust

Photo credit: Marty Sohl


Balanchine’s prolific body of work is incredibly diverse. His ballets are often described as neoclassical; the costumes, sets, and plots prominent in the Romantic and classical ballets of the 19th century are stripped away, allowing the audience to focus on the movement. His style is described as fast, syncopated, and highly musical and he often incorporated gymnastics and jazz elements as well as intricate, innovative partnering in his ballets. Balanchine also choreographed many beloved narrative ballets, including Prodigal SonCoppéliaFirebirdand The Nutcracker.

Music was Balanchine’s creative through line. The son of a composer, Balanchine studied piano as a child and musical theory in his teens. With an early knowledge that far exceeded most of his fellow choreographers, Balanchine’s extensive training enabled him to communicate well with composers of such stature as Stravinsky and  Prokofiev. One of Balanchine’s most famous utterances was “See the music, hear the dance,” and every dancer who worked with him emphasized the musicality of his choreography.


In addition to founding New York City Ballet, Balanchine also played a vital role in Boston Ballet‘s history.

Like Balanchine, Boston Ballet founder E. VIRGINIA WILLIAMS fell in love with dance at a young age. She began teaching at 16 years old when her instructor needed a substitute. From then on she never stopped, opening dance studios across Massachusetts including the Boston School of Ballet in the Back Bay.

Williams founded New England Civic Ballet in 1958, a pre-professional company that incorporated many of her students from the Boston School of Ballet. After Balanchine saw them perform at two regional festivals, he and Williams developed a collegial relationship. He invited Williams to New York to observe his company’s rehearsals, study his teaching methods, and bring her students to train with him at the School of American Ballet.

In the 1960s, Balanchine served as an artistic advisor to Williams’ young company, and upon his recommendation, it was one of seven regional ballet companies to receive a grant of $144,000 from the Ford Foundation. This grant made the establishment of a professional company possible, and in 1963, Boston Ballet was born.


Balanchine visited Boston Ballet to stage Scotch Symphony on the newly formed company in 1963, and several of his other works were quickly added to the Company’s repertoire, including, among others, Allegro BrillanteApollo, and Prodigal Son. Since then, Boston Ballet has performed 39 works by Balanchine and continues to add works from his repertoire nearly every season.

Balanchine’s legacy also lives on in the dancers he taught during his distinguished career. Many of Boston Ballet’s artistic staff and Boston Ballet School faculty danced with NYCB, and former Balanchine-trained dancers visit Boston Ballet to set his works on the dancers here.