First Performance by Balanchine and Kirstein’s Ballet Society Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein organized the Ballet Society to cultivate an audience for Balanchine’s innovative ballet choreography. Within two years, the enterprise had evolved into New York City Ballet, which quickly became one of the United States’ preeminent ballet companies.

Summary of Event

The genesis of Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine’s Ballet Society in 1946 solidified the status of ballet in the United States. This organization, which promoted a radical admissions policy and presented some radical efforts in dance, was the forerunner of the unparalleled New York City Ballet. In its two-year existence, Ballet Society nurtured dancers who would become known as among the world’s best ballet technicians. Even more significant, the undertaking began to reveal the great depths of Balanchine’s genius to increasingly sophisticated dance audiences. New York City Ballet Ballet Society Ballet;companies Choreography;ballet [kw]First Performance by Balanchine and Kirstein’s Ballet Society (Nov. 20, 1946) [kw]Performance by Balanchine and Kirstein’s Ballet Society, First (Nov. 20, 1946) [kw]Balanchine and Kirstein’s Ballet Society, First Performance by (Nov. 20, 1946) [kw]Kirstein’s Ballet Society, First Performance by Balanchine and (Nov. 20, 1946)[Kirsteins Ballet Society, First Performance by Balanchine and] [kw]Ballet Society, First Performance by Balanchine and Kirstein’s (Nov. 20, 1946) New York City Ballet Ballet Society Ballet;companies Choreography;ballet [g]North America;Nov. 20, 1946: First Performance by Balanchine and Kirstein’s Ballet Society[01890] [g]United States;Nov. 20, 1946: First Performance by Balanchine and Kirstein’s Ballet Society[01890] [c]Dance;Nov. 20, 1946: First Performance by Balanchine and Kirstein’s Ballet Society[01890] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 20, 1946: First Performance by Balanchine and Kirstein’s Ballet Society[01890] Balanchine, George Kirstein, Lincoln Stravinsky, Igor

George Balanchine dances Don Quixote to Suzanne Farrell’s Dulcinea in 1965.

(Library of Congress)

An avid lover of ballet and a prolific writer on art and dance, Kirstein had brought Balanchine to the United States. Kirstein dreamt of the establishment of a truly “American” ballet, on par with the companies of Europe and Russia and utilizing American-born and American-trained dancers. In 1933, he saw Balanchine’s Les Ballets Ballets, Les (Balanchine) performed in London, and he recognized that this was the choreographer who could make his dream possible. Balanchine had choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and he was at loose ends following the great impresario’s death. Kirstein was able to lure Balanchine away from Europe in order to direct a new School of American Ballet. This school would be the training ground for the dancers in Balanchine’s subsequent choreography.

Kirstein and Balanchine’s first attempt at beginning a company was in 1934 with the American Ballet American Ballet , a performing group of students from the school. Although it was the resident ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera House from 1935 to 1938, this group received mixed reviews and had little financial success. Balanchine’s innovations exasperated the public, then accustomed to classical ballet technique and subject matter. While he continued to run the school, Balanchine became better known as a choreographer for the René Blum-Sergei Denham and W. de Basil Ballet Russe companies and for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films.

In 1936, Kirstein organized another nationally oriented company, the Ballet Caravan Ballet Caravan . Balanchine’s American Ballet dancers joined Kirstein’s group as American Ballet Caravan on a tour to South America, but the company was afterward disbanded, its funds depleted. At this point, World War II intervened. Following his service in the war, however, Kirstein rejoined Balanchine and attempted to find a new project. Undaunted by mixed successes in the past, they decided to found Ballet Society in New York.

Ballet Society was ambitiously organized as a nonprofit membership organization that would present four evenings of dance each year in various locations around New York City. In return for their subscription fees, members received theater tickets along with supplementary literature that included Dance Index, a magazine edited by Kirstein. An annual yearbook, films, lectures, and phonograph records were also planned as subscription perks. An associate membership cost fifty dollars and was allotted two tickets for each performance; a “participant” paid fifteen dollars and received one seat each night. Modeled loosely after museum membership policies, Kirstein’s admissions strategy was meant to elevate ballet to the status of visual art.

Ballet Society’s mission was to present new choreography, rather than the Franco-Russian ballet revivals that had dominated the 1930’s. Its elegant twelve-page announcement, distributed in early October, stated that the organization was incorporated “for the encouragement of the lyric theatre by the production of new works” with the goal “to present a completely new repertory, consisting of ballets, ballet-opera and other lyric forms.” Kirstein and Balanchine hoped to create an environment conducive to experimentation and collaboration among dancers, choreographers, artists, and musicians. They refused to compromise artistic exploration for the sake of large crowds or the pleasure of “the establishment.”

Some eight hundred people responded to the initial advertisement for Ballet Society. Unable to book a costly theater for a one-night stand, Kirstein and Balanchine chose New York’s Central High School of Needle Trades for Ballet Society’s debut performance on November 20, 1946. Despite an ill-equipped auditorium and the company’s half-hour delay in starting, the curtain eventually rose, and the audience was treated to the premiere of Balanchine’s The Spellbound Child. Spellbound Child, The (Balanchine) The ballet was set to music composed by Maurice Ravel between 1920 and 1925 and incorporated a poem by Colette, translated by Kirstein and Jane Barzin.

Although the company encountered several technical problems, The Spellbound Child proved an auspicious first piece for Ballet Society. The evening’s main event, however, was the premiere of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. Four Temperaments, The (Balanchine) With music commissioned from Paul Hindemith and costumes and scenery by Kurt Seligmann Seligmann, Kurt , it was widely hailed as the most exciting Balanchine ballet yet. Both the music and the dance created variations on a theme based upon the four humors of medieval folklore: “Melancholic,” “Sanguinic,” “Phlegmatic,” and “Choleric.” The original cast of The Four Temperaments included Beatrice Tompkins, José Martinez, Lew Christensen, Francisco Moncion, William Dollar, Mary Ellen Moylan, Todd Bolender, and Tanaquil LeClerq.

Dance critic Edwin Denby, writing in the December, 1946, issue of Dance News, proclaimed that “no choreography was ever more serious, more vigorous, more wide in scope or penetrating in imagination.” He did, however, question the ballet’s gaudy costumes. Because they obscured the dance, the somewhat notorious outfits were later rejected in favor of black-and-white practice clothes—a look that would soon become a Balanchine trademark.

Ballet Society’s next programs were presented at the Hunter College Playhouse, the Ziegfeld Theater, and the City Center of Music afnd Drama. The group continued to present innovative choreography by Balanchine, younger company dancers, and guest artists. The New York audience, though not enormous, grew. Primarily composed of balletomanes and dilettantes willing to pay subscription prices, it was repeatedly excited by the premieres of Balanchine’s “neoclassical” ballet masterpieces.

For his part, Kirstein startled the public and the press with the idea that sufficient tickets could be sold on a subscription basis rather than individually or at the door. (He even eliminated the theretofore sacrosanct press passes; publications had to subscribe to the society to obtain seats for their writers.) Critical acclaim was so overwhelming that the general public clamored to be invited. Kirstein and Balanchine stood firm with their original idea, and subscription sales rose. Ballet Society was a success.

The success of Ballet Society caused it to evolve into a different organization, one that eventually became an international leader among dance companies: the New York City Ballet. This evolution from an exclusive members-only club to a popular civic organization occurred over a two-year span. During that period, Balanchine refined his modern approach to ballet choreography. Kirstein searched in vain for a permanent home for the group and wondered what should be done with all the costumes and sets that had been constructed for one or two performances and then packed away. Ballet Society’s popularity mounted, and its founders waited for a benefactor to appear.

While it had a difficult time delivering on all membership promises (particularly the phonograph records), Ballet Society delighted audiences with other artistic endeavors. Gian Carlo Menotti Menotti, Gian Carlo produced his operas The Medium Medium, The (Menotti) (1946), a tragedy, and The Telephone Telephone, The (Menotti) (1946), a farce, with the company dancers. These performances were so successful that a run on Broadway followed. Dancer John Taras Taras, John premiered his Minotaur Minotaur (Taras) (1947) on the third Ballet Society program; other young choreographers were given chances to experiment as well. Modern dance was also represented in the Ballet Society repertoire; in 1947, Merce Cunningham’s Cunningham, Merce first ballet, The Seasons, Seasons, The (Cunningham) was offered. This piece, with music by John Cage and decor by Isamu Noguchi Noguchi, Isamu , marked an auspicious beginning for Cunningham, a young student of Martha Graham.

Works by Balanchine, though, were what audiences most wanted to see. His style was unique. Typically emphasizing structure and form over fantasy story or allegory, Balanchine perfected the plotless ballet (often referred to as “modern” or “abstract”). He changed the image of the female dancer, in particular, from fragile swan to vital athlete. He captured the daring and playful American spirit in the movements he designed, in essence redefining the classical dancer. Under Balanchine’s direction, the craft of choreography—the arrangement of human motion through space—became art rivaling Michelangelo’s sculptures and Igor Stravinsky’s compositions.

In addition to The Four Temperaments, Balanchine created significant works for Ballet Society that remained in the repertory of the New York City Ballet. Among them were Divertimento (January, 1947), which allowed the male dancers to show off their skills. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s musical counterpoint was skillfully echoed in the choreography of Symphonie concertante (November, 1947), which employed more than twenty female dancers and one male. Symphony in C Symphony in C (Balanchine) (music by Georges Bizet) was hailed as brilliant when it premiered in New York in March, 1948 (it was first created for the Paris Opera in 1947). Dance News editor Anatole Chujoy wrote, “If there ever was any doubt that Balanchine was the greatest choreographer of our time, this doubt was dispelled when the curtain came down on his Symphony in C.”

The premiere of Orpheus Orpheus (Balanchine and Stravinsky) in April, 1948, signaled a turning point for Ballet Society. Balanchine collaborated meticulously with Noguchi on the decor and with Stravinsky on the music. This powerful ballet treated the mythical tale as a universal theme, weaving a story through the intricate movement to a greater degree than the choreographer’s “plotless” ballets. Dancer Maria Tallchief as Eurydice created a furor with her extraordinary technique; other dancers such as Nicholas Magallanes (Orpheus), Beatrice Tompkins, Francisco Moncion, and Tanaquil LeClerq LeClerq, Tanaquil demonstrated the masterful results of Balanchine’s coaching. (Eighteen-year-old LeClerq was the first ballerina to be completely a product of the School of American Ballet.)

Public curiosity leading up to Orpheus (in the wake of Symphony in C’s tremendous success) was so great that Kirstein and Balanchine decided to test Ballet Society’s broader appeal. Company funds (typically coming from Kirstein’s pockets) were almost exhausted. The organization could not continue to cover its expenses with only four performances a year, the dancers could not survive without a more consistent income, and the repertory was in danger of getting lost after one or two showings. They decided to see if Ballet Society had a future playing longer seasons for the general public. The already scheduled subscriber performance on April 28 occurred as planned, but the evening’s program was repeated the following three nights for general admission.

The prestige surrounding these well-received performances attracted the attention of many people, including City Center Chairman Morton Baum Baum, Morton . Ballet Society business manager Frances Hawkins Hawkins, Frances had met Baum while leasing the theater for several of the company’s previous engagements. In Baum, she recognized a possible solution to the company’s imminent fiscal and identity crisis. Although Kirstein was tired of false hopes from would-be sponsors, he went with Hawkins to the City Center office, where Baum made him a decidedly unexpected offer. Ballet Society was invited to take up residence at the City Center and become officially the New York City Ballet. Astonished, Kirstein replied, “If you do that for us I will give you in three years the finest ballet company in America.”

Significance

The New York City Ballet’s opening performance in its new City Center home took place on October 11, 1948. Orpheus was among the ballets featured on that program. While the company was originally engaged as an affiliate of the New York City Opera, three months after its premiere it performed as an independent component of City Center. The company had a permanent home, many of its expenses were supported, and its dancers could count on regular employment. Since then, it has earned and deservedly maintained its reputation as one of the finest ballet companies in the world.

Kirstein stood true to his promise, and in so doing realized his dream of creating an American ballet. While Ballet Society was a private, membership-only venture, the New York City Ballet, with its subsidized ticket prices, became known as the most publicly accessible dance company in the United States. As he trained some of the most technically proficient dancers in history, Balanchine continued to choreograph incredibly diverse and innovative ballets. Unlike other dance companies that emphasized the popular appeal of its stars, the New York City Ballet continued to showcase the choreography itself. Together, Kirstein’s ambitious vision and Balanchine’s artistic brilliance brought ballet to the forefront of the arts. New York City Ballet Ballet Society Ballet;companies Choreography;ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckle, Richard. George Balanchine: Ballet Master. New York: Random House, 1988. Written by a prominent London dance critic, this biography is filled with detail, objective information, and tender remembrances. Chapters entitled “New Beginnings” and “In Search of a Formula” deal specifically with Ballet Society and the New York City Ballet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chujoy, Anatole. The New York City Ballet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. The author, a Dance News editor, was witness to the birth and growth of the nation’s preeminent dance company. Contains several detailed chapters devoted to Ballet Society. Appendix features a chronological list of repertory and dancers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denby, Edwin. Looking at the Dance. New York: Horizon Press, 1968. This collection of criticism by one of the most eloquent dance writers in twentieth century America covers much of the history of Ballet Society. Reviews of company choreography as well as commentary about ballet’s evolution are offered.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duberman, Martin. The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. New York: Knopf, 2007. Both an intimate portrait of the man and a cultural history of his Bohemian social circles; written by a major scholar of gay history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joseph, Charles M. Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Detailed study of the long-term collaboration between the choreographer and composer and the evolution of the styles of each. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirstein, Lincoln. Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein’s The New York City Ballet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. The author and founder of Ballet Society provides an interesting account of the history of the New York City Ballet. His original diary entries are offered and then expanded; the book does not attempt to provide a complete record of events but is a significant and accurate volume of memoirs. Appendix includes chronological listing of repertory and dancers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leddick, David. Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, and Their Circle. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Study of the life and work of Kirstein, as well as photographer Lynes and artist Cadmus, with whom he helped shape the American art world from the late 1920’s through the early 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonagh, Don. George Balanchine. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A very readable biography that includes both fact and analysis. The ballets performed during Ballet Society’s existence are described in detail, as are elements of the choreographer’s artistic process. Includes a chronology of Balanchine’s life and work and a selective repertoire list.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reynolds, Nancy. Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet. New York: Dial Press, 1977. Contains introduction by Lincoln Kirstein and essays by Walter Sorell on Balanchine and Nancy Goldner on the School of American Ballet. This volume is the most exhaustive compilation of the ballet company’s extensive repertoire. All ballets from 1935 to 1976 are described in detail, along with quotes from the critics; casts, costumes, music, and location are also given. A valuable source of information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Teachout, Terry. All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2004. Overview of the life and career of Balanchine and his contributions to the history of ballet. Bibliographic references.

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