- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Today marks the 100th anniversary of George Balanchine’s birth. One of the towering figures of 20th-century art, Mr. Balanchine helped define modernism. He is being celebrated with museum exhibits, television shows and performances throughout the year by most of the world’s leading ballet companies.

Because of Mr. Balanchine, dancers all over the world move differently. They dance to great music — to Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Faure and Brahms — and they dance with a swift, pliant response to that music and with a speed and energy that is a hallmark of his choreography.

Dancers move more beautifully because of the demands of the works he created; lucky ones have learned through training at the school he founded, the School of American Ballet in New York. Now, generations of his dancers are spread across this country, heading companies that perform his work, each with an individual accent.

He shaped our idea of what a dancer should look like, the women tall and long-legged. When he was young, he said, the preference was for “plumpsy” women.

Mr. Balanchine arrived in the United States in 1933 from Russia by way of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, where he was principal choreographer by the time he was 21.

It took a while for his adopted country to warm to his radically new yet neoclassic style, but when it did, especially after he and Lincoln Kirstein founded the New York City Ballet in 1948, he soon became the leading ballet choreographer in the country.

Today, his influence is felt across the land, especially in San Francisco and Miami, where two of his star dancers, Helgi Tomasson and Edward Villella, are heading splendid companies with a core repertoire of Balanchine works. Both groups are mounting Balanchine festivals this spring.

The Miami City Ballet will appear here in an ambitious all-Balanchine program — the “Rubies” section from “Jewels,” “Ballo della Regina” and “Symphony in Three Movements” — at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on April 25.

Other Balanchine dancers now head companies in which his works are given special place.

Earlier this season, we saw his ballets performed with loving care at the Kennedy Center by Suzanne Farrell’s eponymous company. Arthur Mitchell founded and heads the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Ib Anderson, the most recent dancer to turn to directing, heads the Phoenix Ballet. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and his wife, Patricia McBride, direct the North Carolina Dance Theatre.

The biggest celebration of Mr. Balanchine’s centennial, fittingly enough, is going on at the New York City Ballet, where the season highlights the scope of his artistic achievement at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, a hall built to Mr. Balanchine’s specifications. Its winter season runs through Feb. 29, and the company returns again from April 27 through June 27 — a total of 119 performances, not counting a month of Mr. Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” in December.

To reflect the scope of Mr. Balanchine’s career in the theater, the company has commissioned world premieres from Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman, Christopher Wheeldon, Boris Eifman and Peter Martins.

In April, the company will appear in Washington for its first performances here in more than 16 years, bringing such major works as “Apollo,” “Symphony in C,” “Concerto Barocco” and “Jewels.”

Tonight at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, the Washington Ballet is presenting an all-Balanchine evening, with performances continuing through the weekend. The program includes “The Four Temperaments”; a lovely, little-seen pas de deux, “Sonatine,” to music of Maurice Ravel; and the first act of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Although the first act encompasses the action of Shakespeare’s play, the omitted second-act wedding celebration Mr. Balanchine created was very important to him. He said in conversation that he wanted to make it like a heavenly vision but settled instead for gracious ensemble dancing and a transcendently lovely pas de deux that an audience could take home to treasure.

WHAT: Washington Ballet in all-Balanchine program

WHEN: Tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS $48 to $80

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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