New York City Ballet

Chaînés. Pirouette. Fouetté. Relevé lent. Most of the terms associated with ballet culture come from the French and Russian language. Ballet was inherited into American society via European culture and customs. The first ballet company formed in the United States was the American Ballet School in New York City which grew into the most prestigious dance company in the United States today, the New York City Ballet.

The New York City Ballet has gone through several transformations to become what is now known as a world-renowned dance company. Traditional ballet came to the United States through Lincoln Kirstein’s dream. Lincoln Kirstein was a philanthropist specifically focusing on the arts. The initial dream of Kirstein was to create a space in which the ballerinas of the future could hone their craft and become better performers for the public. American ballet started as an idea which found footing in society once George Balanchine was able to join. Kirstein influenced Balanchine to come to America to train the future of ballerinas. Balanchine would only agree to bringing ballet to America as long as they first created a ballet school where people could be trained in the Balanchine way.[1]

George Balanchine is known in the ballet world as one of the founding fathers of non-traditional ballet. Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg in 1904. He was given an education at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg, which trained in the Russian style of ballet. From nine until he was seventeen, Balanchine attended the ballet school. After graduating from school, Balanchine joined the Ballet Russes as a choreographer in 1924 and would continue with this company, becoming head choreographer of one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world until 1933 when he accepted Kirstein’s invitation to be a part of his ballet school in America. The School of American Ballet was made under the tutelage of Balanchine with the financial help from Lincoln Kirstein and Edward M.M. Warburg. The school opened in January 1934 and students were trained and choreographed in the Balanchine style of ballet. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Balanchine would continue to work for the ballet school as well as choreographing dance numbers for Broadway musicals. This continued until World War II broke out and Balanchine went back to choreography in Monte Carlo for the Ballet Russes and Kirstein joined the army.

After World War II, Kirstein and Balanchine reconnected and joined as partners again. The created the Ballet Society where Balanchine would continue his choreography and teaching career and Kirstein would continue to financially support the arts. [2]The Ballet Society was located in the New York City Center on 131 55th Street, NYC. The ballet gave its first actual performance in 1948. Ballet Society continued to flourish under the tutelage of Balanchine and grew in popularity in New York City as more people attended the company’s performances.

The Nutcracker performed by the New York City ballet under the tutelage of George Balanchine. One of the first performances in the New York City Ballet in April 1954 in the New York City Center. Coming from the Dance Magazine.

The Ballet Society changed its name to the New York City Ballet in 1948. Kirstein changed the name of the company on Morton Baum’s recommendation. Baum, the chairman of the Finance Committee at the City Center, encouraged the company to change its name to the New York City Ballet so that it would represent New York City and its culture. The ballet changed locations from the New York City Center of Music and Drama to the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. On April 24th, 1964, The New York City Ballet officially opened its theater, and has remained the resident ballet company in New York City ever since then. Kirstein became the general director of the company while Balanchine was the master choreographer of the company. Kirstein still maintained his position of president of the School of American Ballet from 1934 to 1989.

From 1956 to 1957, people from New York City would go to City Hall to protest against the Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Plan.[3] People were upset about Lincoln Center being placed in the slum where several people lived. Thus, the construction plans for the area were destroying homes and making people relocate to new areas while also destroying businesses and people’s livelihoods. Lincoln Center was just one of the many reconstruction plans that people like Robert Moses had to try and revitalize New York City and make it even more of an urban epicenter. The protesting did not work and instead the plans on Lincoln Center went forwards, but not without its issues. There were a lot of planning misfortunes that occurred while it was being built. One of the most serious issues was the image of the building. The building was supposed to be grandeur and elegant, but there were issues with this like the walls turning a black color due to the pitting of the material and the immense amount of soot in NYC. [4]

Lincoln Center lit up at nighttime. Lincoln Center constitutes of three buildings. The David H. Koch Theater (left), the Metropolitan Opera House (Center), and the David Geffen Hall (right). In the middle of the center is the Revson Fountain. December 18th, 2010.

Eventually, these issues were addressed and the Lincoln Center construction was complete. The NYC Ballet performed under Balanchine until  Jerome Robbins was hired as a choreographer. Robbins like many other prominent figures in the ballet world would be taught under Balanchine the different ways of ballet. Balanchine also revolutionized the pointe shoe. Balanchine’s style of ballet was not the traditional romantic style that he himself was taught with. Instead Balanchine created a non-traditional/non-romantic style of ballet. Thus, the romantic style of pointe shoe did not work for Balanchine and so he created his own type of pointe shoe that would better help his dances with his non-traditional choreography.[5]

Balanchine continued to choreograph and debut new pieces that would later be renowned and performed in his honor. Balanchine served as the ballet companies’ Main Choreographer until his death in 1983. Following his death, Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins co-ran Balanchine’s previous job of Ballet Master in Chief. Peter Marins was responsible for portraying the company’s artistic direction until his retirement in 2017 when he was replaced by Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan.

Due to the COVID Pandemic, the New York City Ballet has been closed for a while and it has finally reopened. The company annually performs 23 weeks throughout the year. Today the company is known as the biggest dance organization in America with about 90 ballerinas within the company. The most commonly performed pieces are those choreographed by Balanchine and Robins earlier in the NYC Ballet’s history. [6] There have been financial troubles at Lincoln Center and because of this many of the New York city ballet performances have been forced to curtail.  Due to revenue being down overall for Lincoln Center, many of New York City ballet’s performances have been reduced along with other arts residing in the Lincoln center such as the New York City Opera and New York Philharmonic.[7] This is partially due to the fact that the current adults in their 30’s to 50’s are not as concerned with “high culture” as their parents were. [8] Due to this alongside the pandemic, the Lincoln Center has been struggling to  financially perform as well as it did from when it had just opened. Currently, ballet has again made itself important due to the pandemic. In the aftermath of the peak of the pandemic there is a need to find something that is good for the different aspects of health such as social, physical, and mental health.[9] While people were still able to be physically fit during the pandemic due to online workout classes and other individual activities, there was not the sense of community that was needed for well-balanced mental health. Instead of people being disinterested in “high culture”, now people are trying to fill their days with anything to do after having to put their lives on hold because of the pandemic.

The transformations that the New York City ballet has gone through show the importance of European culture in the United States. In the 1920s and 1930s there was this increased need for classical culture in the United States. Europe was the main creator of sophisticated ballet and ballet was a mark of culture. Ballet was introduced into America in the mid-19th century, and yet, did not become popular until the 20th century. There was a need for stage shows such as Broadway and ballet. After World War 2 people were looking for an escape from reality, something to no longer have to think about the events of the past. Overall, the New York City Ballet is a staple of the increased interest in the arts in New York City and the need for a type of traditional ballet in the United States, as was a goal of Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. While the New York City Ballet has and is currently going through difficulties, it is a necessary institution for the history of New York City.

 


[1] Mason, Francis. I Remember Balanchine: Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him. Anchor Books, 1992. Pp.113-119.

[2] Wood, Jane Philbin. “Footnote to Balanchine – Memories of Ballet Society and Choreographer George Balanchine – 50th Anniversary of New York City Ballet Company – Cover Story.” Wayback Machine, Dance Magazine, 1 Nov. 1998, https://web.archive.org/web/20051224022748/http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1083/is_n11_v72/ai_21281339.

[3] Zipp, Samuel. 2009. “The Battle of Lincoln Square: Neighbourhood Culture and the Rise of Resistance to Urban Renewal.” Planning Perspectives 24 (4): 409–33. doi:10.1080/02665430903145655.

[4] Millard, Charles W. “Lincoln Center.” The Hudson Review, vol. 20, no. 4, 1967, pp. 657–63, https://doi.org/10.2307/3849579. Accessed 21 Apr. 2022.

[5] Whitney E. Laemmli, “A Case in Pointe: Romance and Regimentation at the New York City Ballet.” Technology and Culture, Vol. 56, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp. 1–27. EBSCOhost, doi.org/10.1353/tech.2015.0011.

[6] Our history. Our History | New York City Ballet. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.nycballet.com/discover/our-history

[7] Teachout, Terry. “Does Lincoln Center Still Matter?” Commentary, vol. 105, no. 2, Feb. 1998, p. 57. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=edsglr&AN=edsglr.A20217509&site=eds-live.

[8] ‘Ibid.‘

[9] Roncaglia, Irina. “The Role of the Performing Arts in Improving and Maintaining Our Well-Being during & Post-COVID Pandemic.” Psychological Thought 14, no. 1 (January 2021): 1–8. doi:10.37708/psyct.v14i1.606.

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