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Balanchine was raised on the dance traditions of the classical Russian ballet established by Petipa. In spite of having all the best teachers and dancers in the world at the time Balanchine states that "Contrary to popular belief, ballet was not taken very seriously by the Russian public. It was an entertainment almost exclusively for the aristocracy, among whom there were perhaps only a few gentlemen who were not primarily interested in what the ballerinas were doing after the performance" (balletmet.com). This changed with the revolution. Ballet was banned for a period until the Minister of Education, Lunacharsky, a balletomane, persuaded the authorities to gradually reinstate ballet.
Sometime between 1919 and 1921, while continuing to dance, Balanchine joined the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. There he studied piano and music theory, including composition, harmony, and counterpoint, for three years, and he began to compose music. He became a skilled conductor and pianist and often played for graduating student performances at the Imperial Russian Ballet School.
He graduated from the Imperial Theater School with honors in 1921 at age 17 and joined the corps de ballet of the Maryinsky, by then renamed the State Theater of Opera and Ballet, and now the Kirov Ballet. Balanchine began to choreograph while still in his teens, creating his first work around 1920 or possibly earlier. It was called La Nuit, for himself and a female student, to the music of Anton Rubinstein. Another of his early duets, Enigma, danced in bare feet, was performed once at a benefit on the stage of the State Theater, as well as for some years thereafter, in both Petrograd and in the West. In 1923 he was able to form a small troupe, the Young Ballet, for which he composed several works in an experimental vein, but the authorities disapproved, and the performers were threatened with dismissal if they continued to participate.
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He also choreographed for films, operas, revues, and musicals. Among his best-known dances for the stage is Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, originally created for Broadway's On Your Toes (1936). The musical was later made into a movie.
George Balanchine is a major artistic figure of the twentieth century. He revolutionized the look of ballet. He emphasized that strength, endurance, and flexibility were important and one could see this in every dancer that performed for him. Although at first his style seemed particularly suited to the energy and speed of American dancers, especially those he trained, his ballets are now performed by all the major classical ballet companies throughout the world.
Ballets Without Shoes. Chapter 1, Looking at Ballets