Our Favorite Balanchine Quotes for His 115th Birthday

Everyone knows George Balanchine the choreographer, and George Balanchine the founder of New York City Ballet. How about Balanchine the wordsmith?

An iconic figure in 20th century dance, the Russian-born son of a composer shaped our current vision of ballet. “[He] created his streamlined, stretchy, leggy style by merging old-school Russian technique with modern-art principles and the sex appeal of the Broadway chorus line,” wrote Sarah Kaufman in the Washington Post.

PNB’s Founding Artistic Director Francia Russell sits in the studio while George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky discuss Agon. Photo by Martha Swope.

When Balanchine moved to Paris in the 1930s, he met Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and other like-minded artists, before his fated invitation from Lincoln Kerstein to move to America and begin a ballet school and American troupe (which would later become NYCB).

Perhaps it was his time with fellow taste-makers that made Balanchine such a studied wordsmith. On January 22, 2019, we’re celebrating Balanchine’s 115th birthday by acknowledging his extreme quotability. Maybe you’ve heard them before.

PNB Company dancers in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®; choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust.

Ballet is important and significant – yes. But first of all, it is a pleasure.

We love this! Attending the ballet is a thrilling and emotional experience. It’s integral to American culture, but it’s also so much fun.

I don’t want people who want to dance. I want people who have to dance.

Becoming a professional dancer is about as likely as playing for the NFL (and it doesn’t pay nearly as well). So why does anybody do it? Balanchine sought those who couldn’t see any other career as an option.

George Balanchine rehearsing Apollo while in Copenhagen.
George Balanchine rehearses Apollo with a dancer in Copenhagen. Photographer unknown.

Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for – for another time? There are not other times. There is only now. Right now.

Save this one for a time when you’re lacking motivation. Why wait?

Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don’t agree with that, because policemen don’t have to look beautiful at the same time.

Balanchine expected so much of his dancers, but he also deeply respected them. “[Ballet] students are engaged in physical training that rivals the training Olympic athletes undergo,” he once said, but they’re also working twice as hard, “to express the pure nature of the art.”

Lesley Rausch, Karel Cruz, and PNB Company dancers in George Balanchine’s Diamonds, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust, photo © Angela Sterling.

First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty, if you’re very lucky and have said your prayers.

We love this quote, as it applies to every aspect of ballet…the dance, the music, the set building, the marketing. The beauty happens each and every time.

God creates, I do not create. I assemble and I steal everywhere to do it – from what I see, from what the dancers can do, from what others do.

This quote complements a few that came before it, including one from Russian composer Mikhail Glinka: “Nations create music; composers only arrange it.” Another from the Bible might’ve been the first: “Without Him was made nothing that has been made.” (John 1:3)

PNB’s Founding Artistic Director Francia Russell in the studio with George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky in rehearsal for Agon. Photo by Martha Swope.

The mirror is not you. The mirror is you looking at yourself.

Balanchine gives us a good reminder about perspective with this quote. Mirrors can be deceitful for dancers who find themselves preoccupied with looking in them. He reminds dancers to bring the focus back to themselves.

There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.

Balanchine’s Law, as he called it, reiterated that ballet doesn’t tell a story. Story is told solely through dance terms. “Don’t worry about your soul,” he once said, “I want to see your foot.”

My muse must come to me on union time.

Great ideas can come at a moment’s notice, but for a professional choreographer, sometimes they must come when we call them (as Tchaikovsky famously said). Creators don’t always have time to wait for inspiration, and it’s best to allow them to come while the creator is on the clock.

Noelani Pantastico with PNB Company dancers in Stravinsky Violin Concerto; choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust, photo © Angela Sterling.

In my ballets, woman is first. Men are consorts. God made men to sing the praises of women. They are not equal to men – they are better.

We often hear the phrase “ballet is woman” attributed to Balanchine. And he meant it.

If you don’t feel challenged, it’s because you’re not doing enough. Ballet should never be comfortable.

This applies far beyond ballet, reminding us to never let ourselves grow stagnant. It’s often thought of as the secret to a happy marriage or a successful career: Always challenge yourself!