George Balanchine wanted audiences to hear the dancing and see the music. Beyond the beauty and the technique, his ballets engage the great composers in what amounts to a choreographed discussion of their works.
''Mozart agrees with me,'' Balanchine once said with the confidence to which genius is entitled, ''and Mendelssohn does, and Brahms, Stravinsky, all of them.'' Not to mention Gershwin, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart from that show-business world he had also been able to enter at least since young Georgi Balanchivadze danced ''Plastic Man and Woman'' in a Leningrad revue sixty years ago.
From vaudeville to folk steps to the most ethereal reaches of classic ballet, Balanchine assimilated it all. The result was the ''pure dance'' that kindled the New York City Ballet and led the way for the extraordinary rise of ballet in 20th-century America.
Balanchine was laden with honors long before his passing last week. As the current tributes confirm, no high art has been more thoroughly identified with one man than ballet with Balanchine in our time. A long future will be the richer for an artist whose works corroborate what he once insisted: that yesterday and tomorrow are always now, to be enjoyed like a ripe Oregon pear.