George Balanchine Trust Repetiteur Nilas Martis with company dancers Erica De La O and Jordan Martin | Photo by Sam English
George Balanchine Trust Repetiteur Nilas Martis with company dancers Erica De La O and Jordan Martin | Photo by Sam English

In my first conversation with Louisville Ballet’s Robert Curran, he promised Louisville audiences would be seeing the work of George Balanchine on stage every year.

It was an exciting statement that got ballet nerds talking. So far, Curran is making good on his promise. He started by including Balanchine’s ballet “Square Dance” in last year’s “Director’s Choice,” which closed out Curran’s first season as artistic director.

This weekend, he is getting really serious about his promise, putting Balanchine front and center as the company offers a full evening of the American master’s work with a program simply entitled “Balanchine.”

“But wait,” you might say if you aren’t a ballet nerd. “Who the heck is George Balanchine, and why should I care if he’s part of Louisville Ballet’s season?”

George Balanchine
George Balanchine

Let’s ask Curran.

“I think it’s important because his work revolutionized classical ballet, and certainly revolutionized classical ballet in the United States,” said Curran in a recent interview with Insider Louisville.

Before we get to exactly how Balanchine changed the game, let’s talk about his life and head back in time to the early 20th century.

America was just beginning to emerge as a global power. Our country had created several new art forms, including motion pictures and jazz. Broadway was the beating heart of a new and emerging form of musical theater, and the Harlem Renaissance was building up steam.

But when it came to ballet, America lagged behind. The center of the ballet world had been Europe from its origins in 15th-century Italy to its codification under Louis XVI, and up until the beginning of the 20th century with masters like Sergei Diaghilev and Michel Fokine.

George Balanchine is the man who changed that.

Often acknowledged as the “Father of American Ballet,” Balanchine was born in Russia in 1904. The country was undergoing starvation, then war and, finally, revolution. But Balanchine was training. He began his dancing at the age of 9 at the Imperial Ballet School, performing for the first time a year later. He rose through the Russian ranks and went on to begin his first experiments as a choreographer in his teens.

He had already made a place for himself in the Russian dance world when he, along with several contemporaries, fled to Europe in 1924 at the tender age of 20.

Balanchine performed and choreographed for several years at the Ballet Russes under European master Sergei Diaghilev. The company shut down shortly after Diaghilev’s death, and Balanchine bounced around between a couple groups.

Lincoln Kirstein was an American patron of the arts who dreamed of the United States becoming a driving force in the world of dance. He was convinced Balanchine could be that game-changing force, so he convinced Balanchine to come to America.

George Balanchine Trust Repetiteur Paul Boos with company dancer Roger Creel | Photo by Sam English
George Balanchine Trust Repetiteur Paul Boos with company dancer Roger Creel | Photo by Sam English

In New York, Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet in 1934, and choreographed several works with the dancers there. He temporarily relocated to the West Coast, began the American Ballet Caravan, moved back to New York, worked for the Metropolitan Opera, and founded The Ballet Society.

His work with the Society finally gained him a permanent residence at the New York City Center, and the Ballet Society became the New York City Ballet in 1948.

As its artistic director, Balanchine wrested the eyes of ballet aficionados away from Europe, and for 35 years until just before his death in 1983, he personally made New York City the center of the ballet world.

So what made Balanchine so revolutionary? It’s impossible to really distill the master’s genius, but Curran will take a stab at it.

“He stripped it back, took away all the artifice, focused on the physicality and the musicality and the artistry, and created this incredibly diverse repertoire of his work,” explained Curran.

Balanchine also worked with artists at the forefront of a variety of art forms — everyone from Igor Stravinsky to Pablo Picasso to Jerome Robbins to Isamu Noguchi to Henri Matisse.

He changed the meaning of dance, moving it away from stories and fairy tales, frequently turning it into an abstract experience, a realm of pure movement. The prolific choreographer created more than 400 new works throughout the course of his career.

Like many geniuses, there was a dark side as well. There was scandal during his life — and some critical discussion after his death — surrounding his relationships with some of his “muses,” the dancers who so inspired him. He was married three times, always to dancers he choreographed. He had complicated relationships with others, most famously Suzanne Farrell, a New York City Ballet principal dancer who was driven from the company when she refused to become Balanchine’s lover, though the two eventually reconciled and Farrell rejoined the company.

When he died in 1983, he left behind a company and a school that still shape the ballet world, and companies all over the world produce his work.

This weekend, the Louisville Ballet presents three works, each a Louisville premiere: “Concerto Barocco” with music by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Kammermusik No. 2” with music by Paul Hindemith; and “Western Symphony,” composed by Hershy Kay. The selection spans almost 40 years, from the “Concerto” in 1941 to “Kammermusik” in 1978.

Company dancer Annie Honebrink Krieger | Photo by Sam English
Company dancer Annie Honebrink Krieger | Photo by Sam English

Curran said the diversity of the music and the span of Balanchine’s career influenced his choices, but he also pointed out the different dancers each piece highlights.

“’Concerto Barocco’ is a ballet that’s predominantly for the ladies, ‘Kammermusik No. 2’ is predominantly for the men, and ‘Western Symphony’ is for the entire company,” he said.

The evening also continues Curran’s commitment to working with local artists. “Kammermusik” will feature new scenic and costume design by Chris Radtke.

“I love working with Chris,” said Curran. “She’s so thoughtful in her approach to her work, such integrity. It’s been a really great process, and I think the product is going to be breathtaking.”

Experience the work of the American master for yourself. Louisville Ballet’s “Balanchine” runs Friday, April 8, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, April 9, at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Brown Theatre. Tickets start at $35.

Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.