Long Tall Sally

The Balanchine method is not a syllabus for training per se, but the term is generally applied to describe the way of teaching dancers at the School of American Ballet (the school associated with the New York City Ballet), preparing them  for the specific requirements of the Balanchine repertoire with its focus on very quick movements coupled with a more open and freer use of the upper body.

George Balanchine. Source: Wikipedia.
George Balanchine. Source: Wikipedia.

In order to discuss this training method, we need to talk about the man behind it, George Balanchine, Russian dancer and choreographer who settled in New York in the 1930′s to establish and pioneer ballet in North America, and mastermind of a new stylistic movement within classical dance. Balanchine trained at the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg and started his career as a choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes where he created such successes as Apollo and The Prodigal Son.

During his term at Ballets Russes he started to develop his own neoclassical ideas in dance. Unlike many of the other dance movements in vogue at the time which sought to break with classical ballet structures, Balanchine borrowed from advanced classical ballet technique and heavy pointe work. In fact, Balanchine often cited pointe work as one of his main career motivations. He also believed that dancers should be able to be communicate without the need of mime or any other narrative aids, so he set about creating abstract, or rather, plotless pieces where dancing was the focus. In other words, his ballets are not usually based on a narrative (a characteristic of the 19th century ballets, think Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake), although he was still concerned with the integration of dance and music.

When invited by impresario Lincoln Kirstein to settle in America, Balanchine was given full creative freedom for his balletic enterprise, so he was able to create and train a company of dancers “purpose built” to meet the demands of his unique style. In 1934 he founded the School of American Ballet and in 1948 he established (together with Kirstein) the New York City Ballet. He was also involved in the design of NYCB’s headquarters – the  Lincoln’s Center New York State Theatre – designed by Phillip Johnson.

Balanchine was a classicist at heart and his fondness for clarity of movement and physical stature goes back to his roots in the Russian Imperial ballet schooling. He looked at ballet as an art for elegant, tall and articulate individuals. Therefore, his concept of an ideal stage was bringing the dancer to the forefront, like a “2D” canvas in which his ballerinas could move, rather than the standard deep opera house stages where dancers became “miniaturised”.

For Balanchine, movement had to be open (arms wider, everything stretching) as to maximise the space. He was fond of deep lines, sharp positions and strong technique in the petit allegro (combinations of small jumps and quick steps). This is why he favoured dancers with long limbs, slim bodies, great flexibility, turnout and (hyper)-extended legs, all this at a time when these aesthetical/physical values had not yet reached the mainstream in classical dance.

At the level of basic technique, the arm positions tend to be more open, less curved and dramatic, often “broken” at the wrist (e.g.”Balanchine arms”), there are deep pliés to accentuate the jumps and preparation and arabesque positions tend to be uneven. For example in other systems, pirouettes are done starting from a fourth position in a deep plié, with weight distributed in both legs. Here, all the weight goes into the supporting leg, with the working leg stretched out as in a lunge. In the arabesque, an open hip towards the audience is preferred, with very dramatic arms:

Pacific Northwest Ballets Jordan Pacitti in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling ©. Source: The Seattle Times.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Jordan Pacitti in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling ©. Source: The Seattle Times.

The position of the body and arms is then used to give the illusion of having a longer arabesque line. It is said that Balanchine took all this ideas from Jazz and that this kind of movement naturally suited those with long limbs. He also had specific ideas on partnering, favouring a more dynamical role to the male dancer in pas de deux.

In short, Balanchine taught his dancers to make use of space on stage through length and speed, and this tradition has continued not only in NYCB but in other companies with direct links to Balanchine such as Miami City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.

To better understand his stylistic approach, let’s compare the following photographs of NYCB and the Royal Ballet in Jerome RobbinsDances at a Gathering.

First we have NYCB (from left, Yvonne Borree, Rachel Rutherford, and Abi Stafford). Notice how the arms and the torsos are held.

NYCB in Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Paul Kolnik/NYCB ©. Source: ArtsJournal via Bloomberg News.

And a photo of three Royal Ballet principals in the same pose (from left, Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb). See how Tamara’s and Sarah’s torsos are inclined to soften the position, and of course, the arms.

The Royal Ballet in Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Bill Cooper ©. Source: Danceviewtimes.

There is a clear difference in how the dancers hold their arms and their upper bodies. The look feels more contemporary in the first picture, while it is much softer in the second. The overall effect can be better understood when looking at live performances, but we think these examples give the general idea.

Inversely, there is an ongoing debate amongst critics as to how Balanchine dancers fare when performing the classical repertoire given that the natural lines of their bodies are dramatically different as demonstrated in the above pictures. What is undeniable is that Balanchine was a dance revolutionary and innovator, with a heightened sense of aesthetics and that he brought a bag of new ideas into ballet.

Famous Balanchine Ballets we Love:

Serenade, Symphony in C, Jewels, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, The Four Temperaments, Apollo, The Prodigal Son, Theme and Variations.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. International Dictionary of Ballet. St. James Press, 1993.
  2. Wikipedia entry on Balanchine Method.
  3. The George Balanchine Foundation [link]
  4. George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb (2004). Harper Collins. ISBN 0060750707.
  5. Keeping the Balanchine Legacy. Interview with Edward Villella by Elinor Rogosin for Dance Universe. [link]
  6. On Balanchine Technique by Suki Schorer (1999). Knop. ISBN 0679450602.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.


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    Thank you so much for the comment & the plug on Twitter Juliette. This one is “from the vault” : ) but we’ll definitely take your suggestion for more on board!

  • June 20, 2011


    Love, love, love how you *show* the differences between the styles using the photographs. I think these ballet appreciation articles really help people understand and get more from watching ballet, and I hope you’ll do more of them as you guys keep growing. This early one is probably worth a re-up from Twitter – I might tweet it myself actually.

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