Balanchine Teaching

Why George Balanchine is a Quintessentially Modern Artist


Modernism is a long historical and cultural period. It began in roughly 1900, but really took off after World War I (1914-18). Many artists and intellectuals were disturbed by the violence and death of the war. They looked to art as an outlet for navigating their feeling of isolation and worry.  Some of the earliest modern artists were from the avant-garde movement. They introduced more abstract representations and started using new, unconventional mediums like photography and collage together with the traditional medium of paint.



  1. Questioning the meaning of art: rise in the notion of art for art’s sakeThe concepts of Modernism and Postmodernism – Enlight Studies
  2. Rejecting the idea that artists had to be trained professionals. Many artists refused to submit work to Paris Salons, where famous artists would usually go present their paintings. They also refused to attend academic painting schools, which taught classical painting techniques.Marcel Duchamp 1887–1968 | TateMarcel Duchamp’s (1887-1968) ‘Fountain’ (1917).  His work is an example of how modernism completed rejected traditional artistic techniques. Using a urinal as an art piece had never been done before. Many conservative art critics saw the work as disgusting and inappropriate. Others saw it as a sign of changing times.
  3. Reaction first to WWI, and eventually to WWII: feelings of malaise, isolation, and horror

Dada - The Anti-War Art Movement - The Art History Archive

A piece of Dada Art. Dadaism was a version of avant-garde that emerged after WWI as artists became dissatisfied with romantic, traditional paintings and instead wanted to create work that reflected the painful realities of life after the war.

Balanchine claimed that ballet was not evolving.  He rejected how it usually showed love stories and instead wanted it  to represent the real world.   Although he still used elements of classical ballet, he also promoted a new technique.  For example, he encouraged his dancers thrust their hips, create crooked (as opposed to straight) lines with their bodies, and turn their feet inward (rather than outward).  Eventually, he founded the New York City Ballet and changed the face of ballet by placing it within a modern context.

George Balanchine - Opéra Bastille - Theatre In Paris
Balanchine, left, with a student, right. The off-of-centre hip placement, and inverted arm posture exemplify his subversion of traditional ballet forms and technique.

George Balanchine and the United States | The National Endowment for the Humanities
Another example of Balanchine’s technique. The hips are thrusted and the posture are destabilized. These forms were not part of traditional ballet technique. The fact that the female wears heals and not the classic point shoe is also important. It suggests that Balanchine was inspired by from other dance forms like ballroom and tap. and the Africanist Aesthetic – Seattle DancesAn example of Balanchine’s choreography.  He found inspiration in Egyptian and Central African tribal rituals, which is often terms the ‘African Aesthetic.’

What Is Classical Ballet? | Ballet Arizona
A typical formation in classical ballet, exemplifying straight lines and perfection. The tutus and elegance are examples of the romantic elements of ballet.



Instead of making high-scale productions or using flashy costumes and props, Balanchine shifted the focus on his dancers.  They  wore simple, tight costumes that accentuated their movements.  Balanchine also prioritized the connection between music and movement.   He did not believe music should correspond to a romantic story made, but that movements had to be directly connected to the music.  

Review: At the Bolshoi, 'Giselle' Is Rethought, Refreshed, Revivified - The New York Times
A typical, romantic ballet still performed today and adored by many: Giselle. Original music by Adolphe Adam, with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.

Sleeping Beauty - Canadas Ballet Jorgen
Another typical, classical, romantic ballet originating from Russia: The Sleeping Beauty. Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, playwright by Ivan Vsevolozhsky.

Review: City Ballet, in Turmoil, Shows the Value of What's at Stake - The New York Times
An example of a Balanchine production, featuring much simpler costumes compared to traditional, romantic ballets.

School of American Ballet Shows Off Its Balanchine and Robbins Skills - The New York Times
Simple costumes and no stage props: another example of Balanchine’s simplistic staging and emphasis on form and musicality in their place. Here, the dancers are positioned with more classical postures and are wearing pointe shoes.  Balanchine did not completely neglect classical ballet structures, but he did refuse to be confined and restricted by them. He brought elements of classicalism into his style to show his respect for tradition.


Balanchine was trained in classical ballet at the Russian Imperial Ballet.  He was inspired by the ballet artists who were more willing to test the boundaries than others.  For instance, he admired Marius Petipa (1818-1910) of France and Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942).  Both artists were still linked to classical ballets, but they pushed the boundaries of dance in new ways.  They encouraged male dancers to take on solo roles, promoted more female duos (as opposed to male-female duos), and started to introduce less traditional movements.  In fact, by the 1930s, figures like Petipa and Fokine were being inspired by modern dance moves.  Modern dance was an emerging style that combined many different forms, like ballet and folk dancing.  Isadora (1877-1942) Duncan was an American who toured Europe to spread the influence of modern dance.  Martha Graham (1894-1991) created her own modern style, known as the ‘Graham Technique.’  She is by far the most popular modern dance artist of the 1900s.  

Imperial Russian Ballet

Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) of the Russian Imperial Ballet.  Her delicate, feminine posture and costume are perfect examples of the traditions associated with classical ballet traditions.  The Imperial Ballet was founded in the 1700s.  It was designed to perform shows for the King and aristocrats of the Imperial Court.  Eventually, as the middle class started to become more wealthy, ballet became an event like going to the movie theatre today.

Imperial Russian Ballet - Hutchison Entertainment Group

Current dancers for the Imperial Ballet performing a classical ballet, ‘Sawn Lake.’  The Russian Imperial Ballet still exists today.  It performs traditional ballets and is known for its strict teaching style.

Marius Petipa | French-Russian dancer and choreographer | Britannica

Marius Petipa.


The Work of Mikhail Fokine – Q&A with Isabelle Fokine – DanceTabs

Mikhail Fokine.

Vera Fokina and Mikhail Fokine of the Russian Imperial Ballet in  'Scheherazade.' Music by Rimsky-Korsakov, choreography by… | Ballet russe,  Dance art, Vintage dance

Mikhail and Vera Fokine dancing.  Notice their Asian-inspired costumes and postures.  Also note that these Oriental references are considered problematic today for appropriating ‘foreign’ cultures, but at the time, they were considered ‘out-of-the-box.’

Isadora Duncan, mother of modern dance and pioneer of feminism | Rome  Central Magazine

Isadora Duncan.  Notice the funky arm position and her bent legs.  These are classical modern features.

Memorable Martha Graham Quotes

Martha Graham Dancing.  Notice that her foot if flexed and her posture is not straight.  She often wore long dresses, which she used as a type of prop.



Like so many modern artists of the 20th century, from Jackson Pollack (1912-56) to Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), Balanchine challenged conformity and the status quo.  If there was one thing that artists had learned from the horrors of war, economic struggle, and genocide, it was that the world was anything but fair or structured.  They saw a scary and confusing world, which they tried to represent in their art.  For Balanchine in particular, ballet was not about telling a specific story or conveying a moral message, but about encouraging the audience to to develop their own meanings and interpretations of art.

Jackson Pollock. The She-Wolf. 1943 | MoMA
Jackson Pollock’s ‘She Wolf’ (1943). The piece is an obvious rejection of traditional painting. It’s stile became known as abstract expressionism, championing vibrant colour combinations and harsh, visible brush strokes.

Black Iris III and the Flower as Symbol in O'Keeffe's Painting
Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘Black Iris’ (1928). Her work was especially influential for feminists of the 1980s like Judy Chicago (1939).

After WWII, the United States had global economic domination, but other issues existed.  For example, many former colonies gained independence, but struggled to develop.  There was also the issue of the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union. It was for these reasons that modernism was a new and important means of self-expression.  For modernists, art had no boundaries, rules, or judgements.  Instead, it conveyed reality as it was: obscure, unsteady, and changing.


The shape of Asia's new cold war | The Japan Times
1. The Cold War.  Throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, tensions between the two states made it seem like the world was on the brink of a third war.

Psychological Trauma and the Holocaust — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
2.  Memories of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust left many feeling hopeless and isolated.

Bretton Woods System and Agreement
3.  The Bretton Woods Conference (1945).  America officially became the global leader in economics.  Market capitalism and trade liberalization were prioritized. The Us dollar became the international means of exchange. An era of US domination was welcome by its European allies, who wanted support to rebuild after the war.  Even so, the power that the Us had provoked concerns about its ability to be a true leader.

After the First World War: the 1919 Egyptian Revolution - OpenLearn - Open University
4.  The 1919 Egyptian Revolution that led to the country’s independence in 1922. Throughout the 1900s, many countries gained independence from colonial powers like Britain and France. These efforts did not occur without struggle. Most post-colonial states continue to struggle politically and economically.

FDR's New Deal: Definition, Programs, Policies5.  President Roosevelt‘ New Deal promised economic development.  Roosevelt wanted to strengthen job security and create  financial stability for the first time since the Great Depression (1929).

Berlin Wall | Definition, Length, & Facts | Britannica
6.  The Berlin Wall went up in 1961.  The event represented the rising tensions between East and West Germany, which made Cold War tensions worse.


Significance in Culture and Anthropology

Balanchine changed the face of classical ballet. His work is influential not only for its newness, but also because it broke the boundaries of social norms. In fact, Balanchine’s legacy continues to inspire dancers worldwide.  The New York City Ballet still operates, teaching is radical, modernist style. Especially in these difficult times we are currently living in, it is inspiring to look back in history to see that even in the darkest and most uncertain of times, diversity, creativity, and artistic expression were powerful avenues for social change.  

About Us | New York City Ballet

New York City Ballet dancers.

Lincoln Center

New York City Ballet Dancer at the Lincoln Centre.

New York City Ballet digital fall season - Dance Informa Magazine

New York City dancers.  This work was part of the digital shows they have been performing due to Covid-19.



  1.  ‘Firebird,’ composed by Igor Stravinsky (1949)Firebird | New York City Ballet
  2.  ‘Bourrée Fantasque,’ composed by Emmanuel Charbrier (1949)Bourrée Fantasque | New York City Ballet
  3.  ‘The Seven Deadly Sins,’ composed by  Kurt Weil (original in 1933)George Balanchine's Ballet "The Seven Deadly Sins"' Premium Photographic  Print - Gordon Parks | Art.com
  4.  ‘Allegro Brilliante,’ composed by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1956)Allegro Brillante - KC Ballet
  5.   ‘Agon,’ composed by Igor Stravinsky (1957)George Balanchine + Agon–agon/
  6.   ‘Episodes,’ choreographed with Martha Graham and composed by Anton von Weber (1959)Episodes | New York City Ballet
  7.   ‘Jewels,’ composed by Igor Stravinsky and Gabriel Faure (1967)Understanding Balanchine's 'Jewels,' a Perfect Introduction to Ballet - The  New York Times

‘Jewels,.’  Although Balanchine did not want his works to convey specific meanings or moral messages, this show was one of the only ones that had no storyline whatsoever.  Known as a ‘plotless’ production, it is one of Balanchine’s most popular and beautiful show.



Ballet, like painting or musical productions, is a source of creative expression.  It has survived centuries of wars, politics, and cultural evolutions.  What makes ballet so special is that it requires intense athleticism, but also creativity.  Being a ballet dancer means working your body in truly challenging ways.  In fact, most ballet dancers retire by the age of 30 because of the great pressures they put on their bodies.  Even so, ballet is a beautiful art form.  It is a sport, an art form, and a means of expression all at the same time.  From evolutions in modern dance and the rise of hip hop, ballet has remained an important cultural symbol in the art world.  

What is Ballet? - Photos & Examples from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

One of the oldest and most famous classical ballets, ‘Swan Lake.’  It is still performed today, with both modern adaptations and traditional versions.  It first premiered in 1887 and was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Giscard Rasquin.  Balanchine himself had his own adaptation of the show, which premiered in 1951.

Swan Lake (Balanchine) | New York City Ballet

Balanchine’s Verison of ‘Swan Lake’ (1951).
Classical ballet has long been critiqued for favouring white dancers.  In recent years, it had become more inclusive, but more work needs to be done for the art form to embrace diversity.  There are also issues of body expectations.  Dancers are expected to have a certain body type and weight to be successful.  These expectations are fuelled unrealistic body ideals that need to change if ballet is to become more inclusive and diverse. 
Celebrating Black History Month: Spotlight on Misty Copeland | Atlanta  Ballet Centre For Dance Education
Misty Copeland (1982).  The first principle dancer (main dancer) for the American Ballet.  As a woman of colour, she has broken boundaries and challenged the lack of diversity in ballet.  She is also an advocate for more body inclusivity.


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