George Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg on Jan 22, 1904, into a very musical family and began studying the piano at age 5. He had a classical education in acting and dance training, beginning at age 9, from the Imperial Theater School in St. Petersburg. It was originally thought that young Georgi would become one of the Tsar’s cadets, so it was with the thought that if things didn’t work out at the ballet school he could always join the army. In fact, in his first year he was not at all thrilled by what he was learning. He only got to perform once in the Maryinsky Theater in such spectacles as The Sleeping Beauty that Balanchine became enamored of the theater.
Balanchine was raised on the dance traditions of the classical Russian ballet established by Petipa. In spite of having all the best teachers and dancers in the world at the time Balanchine states that “Contrary to popular belief, ballet was not taken very seriously by the Russian public. It was an entertainment almost exclusively for the aristocracy, among whom there were perhaps only a few gentlemen who were not primarily interested in what the ballerinas were doing after the performance” (balletmet.com). This changed with the revolution. Ballet was banned for a period until the Minister of Education, Lunacharsky, a balletomane, persuaded the authorities to gradually reinstate ballet.
Sometime between 1919 and 1921, while continuing to dance, Balanchine joined the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. There he studied piano and music theory, including composition, harmony, and counterpoint, for three years, and he began to compose music. He became a skilled conductor and pianist and often played for graduating student performances at the Imperial Russian Ballet School.
He graduated from the Imperial Theater School with honors in 1921 at age 17 and joined the corps de ballet of the Maryinsky, by then renamed the State Theater of Opera and Ballet, and now the Kirov Ballet. Balanchine began to choreograph while still in his teens, creating his first work around 1920 or possibly earlier. It was called La Nuit, for himself and a female student, to the music of Anton Rubinstein. Another of his early duets, Enigma, danced in bare feet, was performed once at a benefit on the stage of the State Theater, as well as for some years thereafter, in both Petrograd and in the West. In 1923 he was able to form a small troupe, the Young Ballet, for which he composed several works in an experimental vein, but the authorities disapproved, and the performers were threatened with dismissal if they continued to participate.