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WESTSIDER GEORGE BALANCHINE
WESTSIDER GEORGE BALANCHINE
Artistic director of the New York City Ballet

11-26-77

To some people he is known as the Shakespeare of dance — a title that he probably deserves more than anyone else now living. But to his friends and colleagues, he is simply "Mr. B" — George Balanchine, the ageless Russian-born and trained choreographic genius whose zest for living is matched only by his humility and his sense of humor.

Balanchine has almost single-handedly transplanted ballet to American soil and made it flourish. What's more, he has played the central role in making New York the dance capital of the world, which it undeniably is today for both classical and modern dance.

Now in his 30th consecutive year as artistic director of the New York City Ballet, Mr. B. shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to direct most of the dances for his 92-member company and to create new choreographic works of daring originality. He continues to teach at the School of American Ballet, which he cofounded in 1934 with Lincoln Kirstein. And Balanchine can still, when he chooses, write out the parts for all the instruments of the orchestra. Yet he thinks of himself more as a craftsman than a creator, and often compares his work to that of a cook or cabinetmaker — two crafts, by the way, in which he is rather skilled.

I meet George Balanchine backstage at the New York State Theatre during an intermission of one of the season's first ballets. It's not hard to guess which man is Balanchine from a distance because, as usual, he is surrounded by young dancers. When he turns to face me, I see that he is dressed simply but with a touch of European elegance. The man is small of stature and quite frail in appearance. His English is strongly accented yet easy to understand. A smile seems to be forever playing on his lips, and when he converses with someone, he gives that person his full, undivided attention.

"Why has dance become so popular in New York?" He gazes at me from the depths of his eyes."I don't know why. People get used to us. It took 30 years to train New York," he says with feeling. "Maybe you can train Los Angeles. You cannot train Boston. You cannot train Philadelphia — there are too many big men with big cigars."

Soon he is improvising on the theme. "Certainly New York is representative of America. All America should pay taxes in New York to make it beautiful. Because in Europe, everybody wants to be in New York to show off. … I think that I will suggest to senators and presidents and everybody to pay taxes to New York."

Mr. B, who left his native St. Petersburg in 1924 and spent the next nine years working as a ballet master throughout Europe, was persuaded by the American dance connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein to come to the U.S. in 1933. Since then, Balanchine has toured the world with the New York City Ballet. He finds the home crowd, however, to be the most appreciative.

"We are here 25 weeks," he explains. "It's always packed. In Paris, you cannot last two weeks. In Los Angeles, in London, they do not like the dance so much as here. In San Francisco, there were five people in the audience. We showed them everything. They don't care. They're snobs. They only want a name. In New York, it's different. In New York, they like the thing for itself."

Balanchine does not write down his dances. How, then, does he remember such works as Prodigal Son, which he created almost 50 years ago and revived this season for the New York City Ballet? "How do you remember prayers?" he says in response. "You just remember. Like Pepperidge Farm. I know Pepperidge Farm. I remember everything."

He dislikes excessive terminology. "I used to be a dance director," he says in mock lament. "Now I have become a choreographer. Choreographer is the wrong title. Because dance is like poetry, see?"

Prodigal Son, in which the biblical story is danced out dramatically, is an example of a ballet with a plot. But the majority of Balanchine's works are based purely on music and movement. "The literary thing does not always work," he says. "You cannot move. There's very few stories you can do."

Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are the composers he most likes to use for new dance works. The late Igor Stravinsky, a fellow Russian expatriate who was his longtime friend and collaborator, once described Balanchine's choreography as "a series of dialogues perfectly complimentary to and coordinated with the dialogues of the music."

In spite of his fondness for Russian composers, Balanchine has no hesitation in naming Fred Astaire as his favorite dancer. "No, I don't use his ideas because he's an individual." says Balanchine. "You cannot use his ideas because only he can dance them. There is nobody like that. People are not like that anymore."

A resident of West 67th Street, Balanchine shows even more than his usual exuberance when speaking of the West Side. "It's the best side. It's like the Rive Gauche (in Paris). We have the best hotels, like the Empire, the best restaurants — Le Poulailler (W. 65th St.) has such good French cooking."

"We have no strikes here, nothing," he continues, grinning widely. "Everybody's very nice, friendly. They help each other. I invite everybody on the East Side to come here. They don't come because they're snobs. The West Side? It's the cleanest side. Also there is no crime here. There's no police here."

died 4-30-83, born 1-22-04.
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