New York City Ballet's power and glory

After half a century, how does the genius of its creator, George Balanchine, still sustain one of the world's greatest companies?
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The Independent Culture

I must admit to a special interest in New York City Ballet's visit next week to Edinburgh. Exactly 50 years ago, as a student, I was one of the spectators so exhilarated by our first sight of the company that we went back, night after night, to watch ballet as we had never seen it before. Little in the way of stories, not a lot of decor, but lashings of wonderful dancing.

I must admit to a special interest in New York City Ballet's visit next week to Edinburgh. Exactly 50 years ago, as a student, I was one of the spectators so exhilarated by our first sight of the company that we went back, night after night, to watch ballet as we had never seen it before. Little in the way of stories, not a lot of decor, but lashings of wonderful dancing.

Nowadays NYCB is long-established as one of the world's great companies, but at the time it struggled to keep going. Then, as now, its prime claim to fame was the genius of George Balanchine, the greatest of 20th-century choreographers. He had begun his career in St Petersburg, became Diaghilev's last ballet master and briefly ran his own company, before being chosen by Lincoln Kirstein (visionary, writer, philanthropist and incomparable activator) as the person best-qualified by talent and temperament to plant the classical ballet tradition in the United States.

It is easy to forget that Kirstein and Balanchine, starting in 1933, took 15 years to reach their target, as one enterprise after another collapsed for want of cash or acceptance - even though Balanchine's choreography was always in demand on Broadway, in Hollywood, or for rival companies. Only after the Second World War were they able to begin the small, members-only Ballet Society, for which Balanchine produced, in less than 18 months, a whole series of masterworks: Ravel's Spellbound Child, Hindemith's Four Temperaments, Alexei Haieff's Divertimento, Bizet's Symphony in C and Stravinsky's Orpheus.

This sustained rush of creative excellence brought them in 1948 to their first permanent home, at New York City Centre, and the title New York City Ballet. It led the best American choreographer, Jerome Robbins, to ask if he could join, it gave the chance to add a new Firebird with thrilling designs by Chagall and to invite Frederick Ashton to create his Rimbaud/Britten illuminations. But there were still only two brief seasons a year: the dancers needed more work, the company desperately needed more income and more exposure.

The turning point came in 1950, thanks to Covent Garden and to Ninette de Valois' admiration for NYCB. Balanchine was asked to mount a work for what was still the Sadler's Wells (not yet Royal) Ballet. He chose his Tchaikovsky Ballet Imperial and it was a tremendous hit. The next morning David Webster, the Royal Opera House's general administrator, improved the terms he had offered for an NYCB London season, signing the contract with the comment, "London will make the company". And it did, just as a New York season in 1949 had been the making of Sadler's Wells Ballet's international fame.

They played six weeks at Covent Garden, followed by weeks in Croydon, Manchester and Liverpool. This more than doubled the number of performances they had given since starting. Many reviews were unenthusiastic because critics thought an American company should offer Americana, but audience response was more accurately shown by the small hand-made bouquets presented on the closing night to every woman in the company from admirers in the gallery and amphitheatre with a card reading: "For your wonderful dancing throughout the season. Please come back."

Invitations came for further tours. Four top dancers joined from the rival Ballet Theatre. Balanchine continued to widen the programmes, and thus began a steady rise that went on and on, including the building of a better, larger home for the company at Lincoln Centre.

Balanchine has been dead 17 years now, so what condition is NYCB in today? A vociferous minority in Manhattan claims it has gone to pot. There are even absurd suggestions that small regional companies, in Miami and Seattle for instance, dance Balanchine's ballets better. In my experience, that's rubbish. There are differences in presentation since his day, but the man himself altered his ballets and allowed changes to how they were done according to the dancers available.

Famously, when asked to start the American ballet he said "First, a school." It still thrives, one of the three best in the world. Like everything else he made, it was based on his St Petersburg inheritance plus, the speed and zest he so admired in his adopted land. Producing an amazing crop of graduates every year, the school helps explain the company's continued eminence. Groups of dancers from New York visiting London's South Bank the past two summers left audiences and reviewers enthused, but were by no means as good as you see in their home town. A varied week of NYCB performances I saw in State Theatre earlier this year showed a splendid ensemble and brilliant soloists meeting all demands of virtuosity, style or (in Robbins's West Side Story suite) fierce drama and even singing too, at full Broadway standard.

Even more crucial than the quality of dancing is what the present director, Peter Martins, claimed recently to be "a repertory unmatched in the history of ballet". An exaggeration? I think not. NYCB was never a one-man show; that 1950 London season already included ballets by seven other choreographers besides Balanchine, and the latter continued all his life to look for new creative talent. But his works shine brightest of all, thanks to his unsurpassed knowledge of the classic technique, his great understanding of music, his sense of form, his taste, humanity and gift for making dancers look wonderful. Every major company has sought some of his ballets and displays them with pride, but NYCB is unique in having had more than 100 specially created. It zealously guards this heritage. For the 10th anniversary of his death in 1993 no fewer than 73 of his works were danced in one eight-week season.

Unsurprisingly, nine of them are coming to Edinburgh, including two trademark creations which unforgettably opened the historic 1950 season, the ultra-romantic Serenade to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, and that dazzling showpiece, Symphony in C. There is, besides, pure classicism to Bach in Concerto Barocco, virtuoso display in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, the touchingly intimate Duo Concertante, the American romp Western Symphony, and three of the works in which he led the way to a new style of neo-classicism, Stravinsky's Agon and Symphony in Three Movements, and Four Temperaments to a Hindemith score commissioned by Balanchine. These will give at least a taste of his amazing variety.

Until his recent death, Jerome Robbins was NYCB's other great choreographer, creating more than 50 ballets for the company. The hour-long Dances at a Gathering to Chopin piano pieces is the finest of them and rightly represents him in Edinburgh. Peter Martins, who has directed the company since 1983, is now NYCB's chief choreographer. Although not the equal of Balanchine and Robbins, he stands comparison pretty well with any of his contemporaries, and his Fearful Symmetries to John Adam's score will show the vigour and speed of the dancers in Edinburgh.

Some of Martins's decisions as director have caused controversy but it was Balanchine himself who chose him for the job. They worked together for 14 years so there is some justice in Martins' claim to know what Balanchine wanted. His own assessment is that "we have grown from being a company originated by two great men into an enduring institution founded upon their vision".

The key to this is that while preserving the company's unique heritage he has maintained its creative role. Each year brings, on average, four premiÿres, and Martins's own innovation is the special "Diamond Projects" (named after their chief sponsor) which, every two or three years since 1992, have commissioned from six to 13 new works with the aim of identifying future ballet-makers and letting them hone their talent by working with excellent dancers. This year brings a further development: a Choreography Institute where both young and established dance-makers can experiment without being tied to specific productions, and can discuss their work with other artists. Of all ballet companies today, NYCB is the one doing most to ensure that its future lives up to its past. Meanwhile we can enjoy its brilliant present.

* New York City Ballet, Edinburgh Playhouse, 14-19 August. Box office: 0131-473 2000. Online booking at