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Balanchine: both uniquely American and universal

When asked to describe how he changed American ballet, George Balanchine, who passed on in New York recently, once said, ''Not 'I changed,' but there was nothing there.''

He left the Soviet Union, where he had been trained in the Maryinsky Theater, in 1924. Lincoln Kirstein, then a young philanthropist, brought him to the United States in 1933 after seeing his work in Europe with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. They started several companies, and the one that lasted is the New York City Ballet.

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The originality, brilliance, and 20th-century look of his ballets would have revivified that art irresistibly anywhere he went. But it's hard to imagine him working anywhere else, because he took so much that is American and made it universal. The speed and energy of his dances, the vast spaces their ambitious extensions imply, their unsentimental, brilliantly practical way of dancing the music instead of a story, the fact that the massed dancers of the corps are just as much the stars as the soloist - all this makes Americans proud of everything the US is supposed to be. He also mustered Broadway show dancing, vaudeville, and the marches of John Philip Sousa to his cause.

It's not that America made Balanchine's work what it is, but more that he picked up what was best around him and transformed it into something even better. Something uniquely his own, which is also American, and is also universal.

He said, ''Ballet is woman.'' And the ballets do show off women in a wonderful way. They seem fearless as they lash through space, intelligent as they stop on a dime on pointe, and strong when they switch directions in a microsecond.

But there is a tender view of women, too. ''Serenade,'' his first work in America, starts with a phalanx of blue-clad ballerinas in moonlight. They all have their hands up, as if to shade their eyes. At the first strain of music, their feet all snap outward to first position. The combination of the vulnerable and the regimented movements reminds us that these are not beautiful machines but human beings working out amazing patterns.

I once saw the New York City Ballet perform in Saratoga, its summer home. The atmosphere there is relaxed, with the audience sitting out in the open on a hillside. As a line of perfect beauties came invincibly onstage, I overheard a man say happily, ''Here come the girls.''

There's a sense in Balanchine's work, no matter how brainy, ethereal, and pure the dance, that he is saying the same thing. Their arms spring up like young shoots, looking all the more bouncy because they hold their hands relaxed, cocked at the wrist and sometimes even waving as they hurriedly prance through their demanding paces. Those upthrust arms give a sense of freshness, of new life, and of joy.

Men are not mere props for ''the girls,'' because Balanchine didn't let anyone stand around onstage. Peter Martins, one of many brilliant Balanchine male dancers, started dancing with the New York City Ballet in 1967 by filling in in the role of Apollo. ''Before we begin,'' Balanchine told him, ''you know, you do it all wrong.'' He reworked the way Martins danced his choreography to make it more powerful.

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To Martins, used to the classical style of the Royal Danish Ballet, where he had his training, the powerful movements looked grotesque. But, he writes in his autobiography ''Far From Denmark,'' ''One eye on him and I knew what dancing was all about.''

It is Martins who was put in charge of the New York City Ballet's day-to-day operations and artistic decisions before Balanchine's passing last week. Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, will share the job of directing the company in his role as artistic adviser.

Balanchine, who worked on Broadway musicals in a lapse between ballet companies, said he learned a lesson from working in the musical theater with Shubert, the theater impresario. Shubert's assistant, Harry Kauffman, said, ''Georgi, what is this?'' about a piece Balanchine was working on that developed slowly. Balanchine replied, 'This is slow motion.' ''Please, you are killing me!'' Balanchine recalled Kaufman saying, ''No slow motion, please. Give me climax right away!''

Balanchine's works are full of climaxes. Dancers are rarely seen preparing for pirouettes or leaps. They do that while someone else is glittering in center stage, then bound up, seemingly from nowhere, to dazzle you further. They string brilliant moments together like pearls. You can't applaud, because you'd miss something else. These climaxes are not endings but beginnings, giving energy as you watch them. At Balanchine's passing, his extraordinary works go on living and inspiring new life in audiences and dancers alike.

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