Born in Tsarist Russia to Georgian parents, George Balanchine (born Giorgi Melitonis dze Balanchivadze) became one of the 20th century's most influential choreographers, a pioneer of ballet in the United States and co-founder of the New York City Ballet. His choreography was largely responsible for the creation of modern ballet, which he based on his deep knowledge of classical form and technique. His work is imbued with music and musical ideas, and he worked extensively with the composer Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine's father was a noted composer and one of the founders of the Georgian Opera. His brother was also a well-known composer.
As a child, Balanchine was not especially interested in ballet, but his mother was, and saw to it that her son had lessons and participated in auditions for various local productions. In 1913, at age nine, he moved to Saint Petersburg with his family, and was enrolled in the Imperial Ballet School. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the school was disbanded. Balanchine turned to playing the piano in cabarets and silent movie theaters just to keep food on the table. Eventually the ballet school reopened, though with greatly reduced funding. After he graduated, Balanchine enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory as well as working with the corps de ballet at the State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet. In 1922, he entered into the first of many marriages and relationships. His first wife was Tamara Geva, a dancer. While still in his teens, Balancine choreographed his first work, a pas de deux called "La Nuit" (1920), followed by another duet, "Enigma," which was danced in bare feet, a dance that, in hindsight, demonstrates his early and frequent interest in breaking and remaking the rules of dance.
In 1923, along with fellow dancers, he formed a small ensemble called The Young Ballet. The new government frowned on the group's experimentation with dance, though the Tsarist regime would hardly have approved, either. The group was encouraged to disband. In 1924, while on tour in East Prussia with the soviet State Dancers, the group defected and fled to Paris. Sergei Diaghilev asked Balanchine to join his famous Ballet Russes as a choreographer. Recognizing Balanchine's talents, Diaghilev promoted Balanchine to balletmaster of the company and allowed him to develop his own choreography. Between 1924 and Diaghilev's death in 1929, Balanchine created nine full ballets, as well as smaller pieces. During this time he suffered a serious knee injury, which limited his dancing and effectively ended his performance career. Also at this time he and Tamara divorced, and he began a long relationship with what many consider his second wife, dancer Alexandra Danilova.
When Diaghilev died, the Ballet Russes fell apart, so Balanchine began to work for others, including the Cochran Revues in London and the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. He returned to his post as ballet master with the Ballet Russes when they reorganized in Monte Carlo. A few years later he again left the Ballet Russes and started his own company. Though it was short-lived (only a few months), it was during that time that he met Lincoln Kirstein, an American arts patron with a dream of establishing a ballet company in the United States. Balanchine quickly was persuaded to move to the U.S., and in October of 1933 he began his lengthy and powerful influence on American dance.
Balanchine began by opening a ballet school, which opened its doors to students in 1934. The first years were not easy for Balanchine, despite his wealthy backers. Americans were not accustomed to the idea of European ballet. In 1948 he established the New York City Ballet, though enthusiasm for the art was still lukewarm. Over time, however, the dance form caught on with both American dancers and American audiences. Balanchine's 1954 staging of "The Nutcracker" became an annual tradition in New York City. In the 1960s Balanchine fell deeply in love with a young dancer named Suzanne Farrell. He created a number of still-famous ballets for her, including "Don Quixote," and the Diamonds section of the full-length ballet, "Jewels." Other prima ballerinas at New York City Ballet resented Balanchine's over-weening attentions to Farrell, and some of them, including Balanchine's former wife, Maria Tallchief, quit, citing Farrell as the reason. At the time, Balanchine was married to yet another woman, but he obtained a Mexican divorce in hopes of marrying the young Farrell. However, he discovered that she had already married another dancer. In 1970 both Farrell and her husband quit the company, though in 1975 Farrell returned to the NYCB.
Balanchine's health began to suffer at about this time. In 1978, the year he received the Kennedy Center Honors Award, he began to show symptoms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but he was diagnosed only after his death in 1983. Since his death, several prominent ballerinas, perhaps most notably Gelsey Kirkland, have criticized Balanchine's punishing rehearsals and his insistence that his female dancers starve themselves. Dancers today are encouraged to keep slim, but at the same time, maintain muscle mass and to eat healthily.