Balanchine’s Boys
A CultureMap®
by Lisa Jo Sagolla
Published on 1/15/14

Revolutionary choreographer George Balanchine famously opined, “The ballet is a purely female thing. It is woman.” Yet he made profound ballets about mythical men: His protégés Arthur Mitchell and Edward Villella radically redrew the image of ballet-dancing males; by employing eccentric hoofer Ray Bolger, Balanchine elevated Broadway choreography. And with trailblazing modernist composer Igor Stravinsky, he enticed elephants to dance. This map traces the potent impact of Balanchine and his boys on dance in America.

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George Balanchine  (1904–1983 | Russian-born (Georgian) American choreographer)
to  Mythical Males

Inventor of the startlingly modern American style of neoclassical ballet, George Balanchine is well known for his female muses—illustrious ballerinas he often married and on whom he choreographed masterworks. Yet Balanchine’s supreme reconception of classical ballet is rooted in his Greek trilogy, three watershed ballets set to scores by Igor Stravinsky. While the third, “Agon,” is abstract, the others, “Apollo” and “Orpheus,” are based on mythical male characters.

Balanchine’s oldest extant ballet, “Apollo” (1928) shows the Greek god of the sun, music and verse not as a mature deity but as a boy learning from the Muses of dance, poetry and mime. Balanchine claimed he had a small soccer player in mind when he created Apollo’s steps, but it was with the subdued, slow-paced “Orpheus,” built of muted gestures and concave postures, that Balanchine scored his winning career goal. Overwhelmed by the beauty of “Orpheus” following its 1948 premiere, Morton Baum, chief financial executive of New York’s City Center venue, offered Balanchine’s dancers a home. Once the near-bankrupt troupe took up subsidized residence at City Center and became New York City Ballet, Balanchine possessed a stable company that would foster his creative work for the rest of his life.

Mythical Males
to  Edward Villella  (b. 1936 | American dancer)

The most enduring myth concerning that most elemental of male relationships—father and son—is the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. George Balanchine created a ballet version of this redemption story in 1929. Although “Prodigal Son” was first revived in 1950 to showcase dancer Jerome Robbins, the ballet later catapulted Edward Villella to celebrity with his portrayal of the title role.

A scrappy Italian American kid from Queens, New York, Villella became a dance superstar under Balanchine’s wing in the 1960s. Fueling his performances with a decidedly masculine athleticism, Villella countered the effeminate image of male ballet dancers—challenging the notion that they are a bit light in the loafers—attracting swooning female fans and popularizing ballet among the general American public.

In 1986 Villella founded Miami City Ballet and developed the troupe into a leading interpreter of the Balanchine repertoire. His company introduced a new ethnic diversity to the American ballet stage with its sizable contingent of Latino dancers—no surprise, considering Miami’s demographics. Yet how fitting that Villella drew from Latino cultures, in which men’s dancing is part of the everyday social fabric, and the male dancing body doesn’t carry the effeminate associations it does elsewhere.

Edward Villella  (b. 1936 | American dancer)
to  Arthur Mitchell  (b. 1934 | American dancer)

Famous for bringing virility to the American ballet stage, in 1962 Edward Villella became King of the Fairies when George Balanchine cast the heartthrob as Oberon in his new ballet of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alongside Villella, playing the mischievous sprite, Puck, was African American dancer Arthur Mitchell. While Villella was dismantling the stereotype of the male ballet dancer’s sexual sensibilities, Mitchell was confounding its lily-white look. Upon joining New York City Ballet in 1955, Mitchell made history as the first black American male to become a permanent member of a major ballet company.

In 1957, when Balanchine shocked audiences with his neoclassical masterpiece “Agon,” the choreography’s astounding originality wasn’t the only thing that caused quakes. Its central pas de deux—full of splayed leg positions and close intertwining—was danced by an interracial couple: white ballerina Diana Adams and Mitchell. Outraged patrons wrote letters of complaint. Not until 11 years later could Mitchell perform the duet on national television. In response to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Mitchell left NYCB and, with Balanchine’s blessing, formed the pioneering all-black ballet company Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Arthur Mitchell  (b. 1934 | American dancer)
to  Ray Bolger  (1904–1987 | American dancer)

The stunning African American dancer Arthur Mitchell shattered ballet’s color barrier, performing prominent roles created for him by groundbreaking choreographer George Balanchine. The jazziest was the Hoofer, the lead character in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (1968). “Slaughter” was a reworking of the landmark dance sequence Balanchine had choreographed for the Broadway musical On Your Toes (1936), starring the master of eccentric dance, Ray Bolger. Its climactic ballet incorporated Bolger’s self-styled maneuvers to depict a hoofer dancing tirelessly to avoid being shot by Russian gangsters. Balanchine considered Bolger brilliant, and when he invited him to coach Mitchell, they discovered Bolger’s movements were too unique to be transferable.

The lanky, clownish Bolger has been compared to a grasshopper, a whooping crane and a cross between a string bean and a jumping bean. Yet Bolger’s physical comedy was art. Unlike the earlier school of eccentric dancers—whose rubber-limbed “legomania” style had little expressive intent—Bolger used his physique to embody and create sympathy for the average Joe, a guy you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting, a gangly soda jerk, perhaps: the confused, blundering, ordinary American male.

Ray Bolger  (1904–1987 | American dancer)
to  George Balanchine  (1904–1983 | Russian-born (Georgian) American choreographer)

Comedic dancer Ray Bolger’s renown stems from three milestone performances. One is his iconic portrayal of the Scarecrow in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz; the others are in Broadway musicals choreographed by ballet genius George Balanchine. Oz accounted for Bolger’s household-name popularity, and the 1948 musical Where’s Charley? saw Bolger delight audiences with the zany soft-shoe sing-along “Once in Love With Amy,” which became his signature number.

Bolger’s greatest artistic achievement, however, was originating the role of the Hoofer in On Your Toes. For that 1936 musical, Balanchine choreographed a 15-minute ballet that plays out the show’s suspenseful climax. Marking the first time in American musical-theater history that dance took over storytelling duty, Balanchine’s ballet established choreography as an integral dramatic element of the Broadway musical.

Bolger and Balanchine reunited for the 1940 revue Keep Off the Grass, in which Balanchine’s “Raffles” ballet had Bolger impersonating the fictional gentleman thief. Although Bolger’s idiosyncratic dancing was self-invented, his association with Balanchine expanded his creative approach. In turn, Balanchine’s classical choreography was spiced by his mingling with America’s stellar vernacular dancers.

George Balanchine  (1904–1983 | Russian-born (Georgian) American choreographer)
to  Igor Stravinsky  (1882–1971 | Russian-born American composer)

A towering force in modernist music, composer Igor Stravinsky was arguably the most important man in the life of George Balanchine, the preeminent ballet choreographer of the 20th century. Twenty-two years his senior, Stravinsky was Balanchine’s mentor and beloved friend, and Balanchine made his most exalted works to Stravinsky scores.

Balanchine’s choreographic mission was to illuminate, not ornament or subjugate, Stravinsky’s music. Conservatory-educated, Balanchine possessed a sophisticated knowledge of music theory and an extraordinary understanding of Stravinsky’s compositions. The two were so perfectly in tune with each other’s modern reenvisioning of classical principles that Balanchine was able to visually spotlight musical ideas embedded in Stravinsky scores that were unnoticeable or incomprehensible to many listeners. For example, in “Agon,” he correlated choreographic mirror images to Stravinsky’s complex serial procedures of pitch inversion.

While Balanchine helped audiences decipher Stravinsky, the composer sparked the choreographer’s genius. Upon hearing Stravinsky’s elegantly spare music for “Apollo,” the duo’s watershed 1928 ballet, Balanchine underwent an artistic epiphany. He realized that he too could eliminate the extraneous and that gestures, like musical tones, have family relationships. Stravinsky taught Balanchine austerity and homogeneity, the qualities most responsible for his ballets’ streamlined beauty.

Igor Stravinsky  (1882–1971 | Russian-born American composer)
to  Elephants

The dissonant, polyrhythmic music of Igor Stravinsky takes some getting used to, at least for elephants. At their first rehearsal with its commissioned Stravinsky score, the pachyderms performing “The Ballet of the Elephants” were so ruffled that they rushed through their choreography, completing it long before the music ended. Created by George Balanchine for 50 women and 50 elephants from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the 1942 ballet premiered at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Its score was not the kind of accompaniment to which the animals were accustomed. But by opening night they had acquired a taste for modern music (or were simply ignoring it and performing at their memorized pace); a reporter commented on how perfectly the premier pachyderm had finished its movements in time with the closing cadence.

Reflecting a mid-20th-century effort to make circus entertainment more highbrow, the ballet integrated the trained elephants’ typical maneuvers with ballet imagery. Costumed in tutus and jeweled headbands, with women partners posing in arabesques atop their heads, the all-female corps des éléphants swayed and stomped to avant-garde Stravinsky sounds, imbuing Balanchine’s ballet with traditionally male-supplied solidity and gentlemanly grace.

to  George Balanchine  (1904–1983 | Russian-born (Georgian) American choreographer)

No high-art snob, esteemed choreographer George Balanchine enjoyed creating a ballet for 50 elephants and 50 women. Its debut performance, on April 9, 1942, included a prelude danced by his then wife, ballerina Vera Zorina, and the prima pachyderm, Modoc. Riding on Modoc’s back and nestling against her trunk, Zorina claimed she was never afraid, as the noble female beast treated her with the chivalry of a classical ballet cavalier. Yet this was not the only time Zorina’s image was linked, via Balanchine, to elephants.

“Dance of the Hours” from Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia features dancing elephants (and ostriches, alligators and hippopotamuses). From the moment the prima hippo emerges from her pool, it’s clear the cartoon is modeled on Balanchine’s “Water Nymph Ballet” from the 1938 film The Goldwyn Follies, starring Zorina. So similar is the animated ballet to the one Zorina danced that in 1981 Balanchine scholar Nancy Reynolds wrote to Walt Disney Studios, asking if Balanchine had consulted on the film. An archivist said no but noted that when Fantasia was in production, Balanchine visited the studio and was shown sketches for the “Hours” ballet. Is it a coincidence the cartoon’s leading pachyderm is named Elephanchine?