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Georges Skibine: Ballet Dancer and CI Operative

Updated: Feb 19

Georges Skibine1 was born in the Ukrainian town of Yasnaya Poliana (in Kherson) at the height of the Ukrainian-Soviet War. On his birthday, January 30, 1920, Bolshevik forces were bombarding the town, while his father, Boris Skibine, an officer in the White Russian Volunteer Army, was fleeing westward towards France. His mother, Vera née Hobe, was of Belgian extraction, and she was finally able to use this Belgian connection to acquire false papers for herself and her son, so that they could leave Ukraine and join her husband in Paris.


Georges was too young, of course, to remember the war and his flight from Ukraine, but he did grow up speaking Russian throughout his formative years. Georges’s father, Boris, had been an actor, but the Parisian theaters had no interest in hiring a Russian-speaking actor. Fortunately, he had acquired a rudimentary education in dance and, on the basis of this, was hired by the Ballets Russes, under the direction of Sergei de Diaghilev. This A-class company was able to commission work from the day’s leading artists (Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque) and composers (Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky). Among dance aficionados, the Ballets Russes was especially noted for raising the status of the male dancer, and, years after Diaghilev’s death, Georges would join this reconfigured company in Monte Carlo. As a child, however, he took little interest in becoming a dancer, even though he spent a good deal of time back stage, learned Russian folk dancing from his father and some of the other Diaghilev dancers, and appeared in crowd scenes in Stravinsky’s Petrushka at age 5. 2


Instead, he was sent away at age 6 to live and study at the Pères à Saint-Joseph de Vincennes school. At the Ballets Russes his childhood friends had spoken Russian. Now, for the first time, he was living and learning in an exclusively French-speaking environment. He quickly adjusted, however, achieved high grades, and was awarded a scholarship. Then, after a few years, he enrolled in the Albert-de-Mun high school in Nogent on the Marne. Here he followed the classical curriculum, learning Latin and Greek and preparing for the study of literature.


But before he could graduate, Georges’s father tore the meniscus tissue in his knee, and could no longer dance professionally. Georges, who was now 16 years old, left school before graduation, returned to Paris, and looked for a job to help support the family. 


He was fortunate in his timing. Bal Tabarin, a cabaret that was a major rival to the Moulin Rouge, had just decided to expand its can-can performances to include male dancers. Georges was an ideal applicant, in that he had acquired the necessary acrobatic skills in his performances of Russian folk dances. The cabaret owner, Pierre Sandrini, proved to be a generous employer and a  loyal supporter of his dancers. Georges performed every day from midnight until two in the morning; this left him free to pursue other activities during the daytime. Georges’s return to the stage after his ten-year hiatus as a student proved intoxicating, and he now decided to pursue a career in classical ballet.



a young George Skibine posing for a picture
Georges Skibine, 17, as a can-can dancer at the Bal Tabarin

While continuing his night work as a can-can dancer at the Bal Tabarin, Georges followed a vigorous day course of study with his father and with Olga Preobrajenska; she was the former lead ballerina with the Russian Imperial Ballet and now one of the most renowned dance instructors in Paris.

But things moved too quickly for the eager young student. Within six months he’d been given a contract with Paul Colin’s Ballets de Paris, followed soon after by a coveted position with René Blum’s renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the reconfigured dance company with which his father had performed. This all came about through a recommendation written by Serge Lifar, principal dancer in the old Ballets Russes and a good friend of Georges’s father. Pierre Sandrini generously freed Georges from his contract at the Bal Tabarin, and Georges departed for Monte Carlo full of high expectations. But these were quickly dashed when ballet master Michel Fokine, after observing Georges at work, declared that he knew nothing about choreography and was therefore unequipped for work in the company. After only two months in Monte Carlo, Georges abashedly returned to Paris, and was allowed to take up his old position at the Bal Tabarin. And he now went through intense training in choreography with Olga Preobrajenska and his father.


Once again, luck came his way when Serge Lifar was in need of a dance model for his work as director of the Paris Opera Ballet. Georges could not have found better schooling than he did by working directly with Lifar and a piano accompanist and seeing how a new ballet was conceived and formed into a finished work for the stage. He also came into contact with Lifar’s painter, writer, and composer friends. Several of these came up with the idea of forming a company for dancers under 18 years of age, called the Ballets de la Jeunesse. It was here that Georges made his official stage debut as a ballet dancer under the direction of Lyubov Egorova. Critics took note of Georges’s performance, mentioning him specifically as a “true star.” 3


Within a year, Georges’s future changed. There was an administrative change at the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, and Léonide Massine had succeeded Fokine as master of the company. Massine came to Paris, heard Serge Lifar’s recommendation of Georges, and went to see Georges perform at the Bal Tabarin. Within a year of his humiliating ouster, Georges was now reengaged by one of Europe’s major companies. 


It was here that Georges had his true apprenticeship. As a company member, he was not, at first, given any solos, but he finally did get a role as the stag in a production of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. It was a success, and René Blum decided to give him a more important role in Afternoon of a Faun. Although Georges felt that he was not yet ready for so important a role, he was, again, successful. Now Léonide Massine decided to give him the principal role in St. Francis d’Assisi. At this point the company stars threatened a boycott if this role was not given to one of them. Massine settled the matter by dancing the role himself.


Unfortunately, Massine would soon leave Monte Carlo. As soon as war broke out in September 1939, he departed for the States, taking with him the company stars and only the American company members. Georges was left behind, along with the French and the stateless members of the company.


René Blum had remained in France and did his best to help the remaining company members by extending funding to them from his personal accounts. The dancers continued to hold daily morning classes. In the afternoon Georges and some of the other dancers gathered in René Blum’s office in expectation of telegrams from Massine out of America; these never arrived. For Georges, however, these hours were not wasted. Blum was close friends with the best of the contemporary French painters; he showed their art works and spoke about them with the young dancers who visited. It was for Georges an initiation into the world of painting, and it would become a lifelong passion.


Evenings the dancers gathered at the home of a French journalist to chat, nourish future plans, share meals, and play poker. They were often joined there by Serge Lifar. On one of these evenings Lifar brought the company unbelievably good news: in a joint venture, the French and British governments were sponsoring a tour of Colonel Wassily de Basil’s Ballet Russe to Australia, in an effort to spread cultural good will.  De Basil and Blum had worked together for a long time as successor directors to Sergei de Diaghilev’s original Ballets Russes; now selected dancers from both fragmented companies were reunited in this tour. In November, 1939, Georges left for Australia, little suspecting that he would not return to Paris until after its liberation in May 1945. He was in Sidney when he received news of the fall of France. It would be well over five years before he would see his parents again.


a large group of people around a man and woman posing for the finish of a scene
Nina Verchinina and Georges Skibine in Lutte Eternelle, 1940

With France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany in June, 1940, funding for the Australian tour dried up. In order to continue, the company needed to mount productions without sets and almost without costumes. A brilliant young choreographer, Igor Schwezof, constructed a ballet that yielded to these terms. Instead of complex sets and costumes, stage effects would be achieved through lighting and color. The ballet, Lutte Eternelle [Eternal Struggle], portrayed all the entrapments a young man encounters in life. It was set to the music of Robert Schumann. The main male stars refused to perform the title role out of fear of their not being paid. It was then offered to Georges, even though it was, the press noted, “an uncommonly long and strenuous role.” Audiences were enraptured both by the ballet itself—“a combination of emotion with formal abstract patterns”4 — and with Georges’s performance in it. “Georges Skibine must have been born for this ballet,” one reviewer exclaimed, although “he is barely 20 years old. […]It may be chronicled as a prediction that he will reach greatness.”5 He was, another wrote, “extraordinarily free and spontaneous, and keenly aware of his interpretive role.”6


He was now feted as an exciting new ballet star. The company’s public relations officer promoted this, by writing that Georges was called “Yura” by friends and that he was “a young athlete, good-looking, and he wants to be an artist. He affects wide-brimmed hats, floating cravats, and looks with longing at the paintings of old masters. He can be full of laughter one minute and overcome by melancholy the next. Such is Yura.”7


Georges created such a success in this role that Colonel de Basil was able to pay his troop for an additional month of performances at Sydney’s Royal Theater.


Unfortunately, the money then ran out, the troop was disbanded, and de Basil left for New York to seek new contracts. Georges and the other troop members were now left in a foreign country, without money and without hope of employment. Georges and two friends were offered under-the-table food and lodging in exchange for their working at a cattle breeding station, but, after one of them suffered a severe leg fracture, the three left the station. 


Fortunately, de Basil soon returned to Australia, bringing with him a contract for North America, even though the company was engaged for performances only in Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York. The company’s public relations officer drummed up America’s interest in “a sensational new dancer, who will make his American debut with the company here. His name is George Skibine. […] When the ballet, ‘The Eternal Struggle’, is given here, Skibine will dance the feature part. It is his first important role.”8 The new, reformed Ballet Russe company gave its first performance in Los Angeles, in October 1940. Although Georges was acclaimed there, the company itself was soon caught up in its own existential struggle. The Russo-Finnish war and the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact did nothing to endear Americans to a Russian Ballet Company, and de Basil was forced to take the group on tour to Mexico and South America. Despite triumphal performances in Mexico, the tour was obligated by contract to move on to Havana, Cuba. There de Basil announced to his dancers that he had decided to cut their salaries in half. The dancers protested by refusing to perform, but the colonel held firm: he was leaving Cuba with those dancers willing to accept the cut in salary, and the others would be left behind with nothing. Georges was one of those dancers who chose to be left behind. They sustained themselves on “rice, bananas and rum.” Several got jobs in night clubs; Georges served as company cook. After two desperate months and many distress calls to the States, the impresario Sol Hurok provided the dancers with American visas and ship fares to New York City. Once again, Georges’s life had taken a positive turn.


a man and woman posing for a picture for a ballet
Alicia Markova and Georges Skibine in Aleko, 1942

Sol Hurok was, in contrast to Colonel de Basil, a man known for his generosity towards his performers. Georges and his fellow dancers were now incorporated into the Ballet Theatre, a group founded two years earlier, and the Russian dancers now joined its body of American and British dancers. Michel Fokine was one of the company’s choreographers. It was extremely gratifying to Georges to see the man who had once fired him from the Ballet de Monte Carlo now recognize his talent and give him solo roles in Les Sylphides, Bluebeard, and Petrushka.


Georges recalled that he owed his good fortune to a positive review by John Martin in The New York Times. Martin, he said, wrote that, “although Skibine has not yet acquired a purely classical technique, he has, through his art and his virility, rendered the role of the Sylphides more acceptable than all the other dancers of this epoch.” Georges took this review to Hurok’s office, who remarked that he would, of course, immediately double Georges’s salary and give him the rank of soloist. Georges left the office stunned at the sudden positive turn of events.9


More solos followed, most notably in the ballet Aleko, which was choreographed by Léonide Massine to Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor. The ballet was based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin, and told the story of an aristocratic young man who joins a roving band of gypsies, falls in love with the chieftain’s daughter, and then murders her when she leaves him for another man. This plot in itself provided a wide range of emotion for the lead dancer. The setting and costumes were designed by Marc Chagall; because of strict union rules that forbade Chagall from painting the backdrops himself, it could not premiere at the Metropolitan Opera as the company had hoped, but opened instead in Mexico City, where the Ballet Theatre began a residency as guests of the Mexican government. There the opera had its premiere on September 8, 1942, and garnered 18 curtain calls, both for the dancers and for Massine and, especially, for Chagall.10 This was Georges’s biggest success to date. Later that season, when the company’s lead dancer Anton Dolin fell ill, Georges replaced him in Swan Lake, Princess Aurora, and La Fille mal gardée [the Wayward Daughter].


Soon after the company’s return to New York, Michel Fokine fell ill and died. This was a terrible loss to the dance community and a severe blow to Georges. And in 1942 America Georges found that the public was far more attuned to the defeat of Hitler than to the world of dance. Georges, too, came to feel that his ballet career was a useless one in a world at war. He gave away his costumes, dance shoes, and makeup materials, and, in December 1942, entered the US Army. His enlistment records do not even mention Georges’s profession as dancer; he was described instead as working in “skilled occupations in manufacture of electrical machinery and accessories.”


A young George Skibine in American uniform
Staff Sergeant Georges Skibine with his marksmanship medal

In the Army he pursued the same drive that he had shown in dance. He was sent to basic combat training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and six weeks later earned the highest rating in marksmanship in firing the M1 rifle and the 30-caliber light machine gun. With accent-free, native fluency in both Russian and French, it was only natural that he would be brought to Camp Ritchie for specialized training in military intelligence. There he became a member of the 9th class  (21 June to 18 August, 1943), with specialized training in French interpretation and translation. On September 14th he was alerted for departure and, on October 20, left for England as part of a team of six Ritchie Boys with advanced training in French; this team (MI Team 405) would be assigned to the First US Army Headquarters and serve as Military Intelligence Interpreters from April 12, 1944 until May 14, 1945. Georges was also made a Counter Intelligence Corps agent for this same period. On June 6th—D-Day— he crossed the channel to go out “on assignments to conduct interrogation of subversive subjects, in order to assure security in occupied territory, also to detect and check the penetration of enemy agents.” He also “made and investigated reports.” 11


He took part in the Normandy and Northern France campaigns, including the capture of Cherbourg; during this time he was often sent behind German lines to retrieve crucial information from the French. In this manner he was able to enter Paris even before the Germans left the city. Georges was especially eager to get into the city, since he had not seen his parents in over five years. He frightened his mother when he knocked at the door, because she mistook him for a German soldier.


From Paris he moved on to the Ardennes forest. He was among the first to cross the Siegfried Line into Germany in September, 1944, and to reach the Rhine in March 1945. When the American forces made contact with Russian troops at the Elbe River, he served as interpreter. For his efforts he received two Bronze Arrowheads for assault landings and the Bronze Star for valor in action.


The most horrifying experience for him, however, occurred in May 1945 when he entered Gusen, a particularly brutal concentration/work camp in Austria. Gusen was a sub-camp of Mauthausen. It held foreign prisoners, a majority of them Poles. Because the camp’s governing principle had been to exterminate through labor, average life expectancy in the camp had been only six months. Georges left the army deeply marked by the war, by the death and brutality that he had witnessed. In the words of ballet historian Léon Nemenschousky: “Of that period he retains a black, unhappy memory. He learned the full horror and hatred of war. All his art was to be haunted by that devastating experience.”12


At the conclusion of the war, Georges’s commanding officer wrote that he had performed above his rank: that he had been assigned to work normally done by an Intelligence Officer, and that he did this “with marked excellence, and gained the respect of his associates, both British and American.”13


Georges did not get the commission that his commanding officer recommended, but the Army did take notice of him. Already in the spring of 1945, the Allies were concerned with Russia’s reach into central Europe. Georges had the skills to serve as a Russian translator or interpreter, but he lacked the political and social knowledge of Russia to continue counter intelligence work. He was sent as an army student to the USA Officer Liaison School for Russian, where he spent ten weeks studying the government, army, politics, economic relations, language and etiquette, and Russian schooling. He then became part of the three-man Russian Liaison official team attached on Sept. 3, 1945 to G-2 Section, HQ 26th Infantry Division. After only six weeks in this position his term of service was over, and George returned to Fort Dix to be officially discharged from the Army. That same day he enlisted in the Enlisted Reserve Corps (now called Army Reserve) as a specialist in Military Intelligence. 


Because he had been unable to practice his ballet technique for nearly three years, Georges had given up all thought of returning to dance, and was at loose ends as to what work he should pursue. He took a job verifying passports for an airline, while also working as a translator for a New York art dealer. In both jobs, he was actively using training he had received in military intelligence.


Then, one day, he met Sol Hurok, who made an astonishing proposition: that he be hired to begin doing lesser work in ballet until he had regained his dancing skills, on the condition that he work exclusively for Hurok when he was able to resume his career as a star performer. Georges immediately began strenuous training under Anatole Obouhkoff and Anatole Vilzak. His first appearance on stage in New York, in July 1946, was not a success; although he had been greeted when he stepped on stage with an ovation, he felt completely out of his element, performed only adequately, and realized just how rusty his technique had become. He doubled down on his training as he continued on a tour with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. When Dolin suffered an injury and was unable to perform in Detroit, Georges now replaced him, dancing beside Markova in Giselle in the role of Albrecht. Later, in a New York performance, he took the role of the gamekeeper Hilarian, and made it his own by transforming the role from that of an impotent clown to that of a sincere, scoffed lover. Sol Hurok now engaged Georges as star performer with the Ballet Russe under the direction of Wassily de Basil. 


De Basil still bore a grudge against Georges for refusing to join him in New York for half a full salary, and allowed him only those starring roles that had already been promised him and, of course, the role of Hilarian in Giselle. Otherwise, he was relegated to dancing as a member of the supporting company. But this, too, brought him unforeseen benefits, for it brought about his close acquaintance with the young woman who would become both his dance and his marital partner: Marjorie Tallchief.


Marjorie was one of five native American dancers who would become internationally renowned ballerinas and be honored as the “five moons of Oklahoma.” Her father was an Osage Indian leader, her mother was Scotch-Irish. Her older sister, Maria, also a premiere ballerina, was married to choreographer George Balanchine. The mother of the two sisters had encouraged the two girls to study dance, and, thanks to their father’s oil revenues, they were able to move to California to study with Ernest Belcher, David Lichine, Tatiana Riabouchinska, and Bronislava Nijinska. Maria would make her career in New York, Marjorie hers in Paris.


By the end of their yearlong tour in the States, Georges and Marjorie were engaged and, in August 1947, the two were married in the Russian church in Vichy, France. Both were now star performers with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas from France and Monaco.


Even as he was regaining his full dancing skills, Georges had continued to serve in military intelligence in the American Army’s Enlisted Reserve Corps, attending regular meetings when he was in the States and writing up his perceptions of the people and locations where he went on tour. In July 1947 he was told he could apply for promotion to commissioned officer and be appointed to the Officer’s Reserve Corps, but Georges was now determined to devote all his energies to dance and to his marriage, and he declined. And on September 30, 1948 he was granted an honorable discharge from the Armed Services.


The 1947-1948 season was a difficult one for Marquis de Cuevas’ company of performers. Much of Europe lay in ruins, and performing venues were often less than adequate. When, in November 1947, Georges and Marjorie made their Paris debut as stars in Les Sylphides, they performed in an unheated theater before an audience in winter coats; it was a testament to their performance that they earned sustained applause under these circumstances. In December the company set out on a tour through France, where they often performed in drafty, half-empty theaters. Still, word of their success spread, and the company began to be invited to perform in larger European venues, where Georges solidified his reputation as a dancer of passion and strength and Marjorie developed the majestic control and acrobatic perfection that soon made her a major star in the company. As de Cuivas would say, many years later, “Georges Skibine,Marjorie Tallchief; I cannot write those names without a certain emotion. Amongst the children of my Ballet, those are the only two I could help with all my heart […]. [They] have left my company, but I still look upon them as my children, and their successes make me proud.” He was was especially proud of Georges, because “it was my privilege to help him become a very distinguished choreographer.”14


Georges Jumping with a sword in hand
Georges Skibine in Le Prisonnier du Caucase, 1954

Georges’s debut as a choreographer came in 1949, when de Cuevas asked him to choreograph a ballet to Berlioz’s music for Romeo and Juliet. Georges would claim that de Cuevas gave him this assignment because no other choreographer was available. De Cuevas denied this; “If I chose Georges it was because I had faith in his talents. The outcome proved that I was right.”15


Georges said he went to his brother-in-law, choreographer George Balanchine, for advice. Balanchine told him to listen to the music once, twice, up to twenty times. If he had no inspiration after twenty listenings, he was simply no choreographer. Georges followed his advice, but rejected the music of Berlioz for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. He danced the part of Romeo when his ballet, Tragédie à Vérone had its debut in Monte Carlo on May 4, 1949. It received good, but not rave reviews, and was more a tribute to classical ballet than to innovation. This would change by the time Georges choreographed his next ballets, beginning in 1952 and lasting long into his career. And, in 1955, he would do choreography for Romeo and Juliet to Berlioz’s music; this would be performed in the illuminated courtyard of the Louvre and was “one of the biggest tourist attractions that Paris had ever had.”16


In the meantime he was named principle star of the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas and performed an extraordinary number of roles, to which he brought new insight and dramatic intensity. He studied the art of pantomime and the expressive physical acting in silent films for insights into his own creativity; in a ballet that he choreographed in 1955 he paid direct tribute to silent film by mounting a production based on Rudolf Valentino’s The Sheik.


Georges’s first return to choreography occurred in 1951 when he created a production of Annabel Lee for his wife; it failed at its first performance and was pulled from the stage, but, after reworking it, it premiered in London in 1952 to outstanding reviews and became a regular part of de Cuevas’s repertory. Called “a minor but rapturous piece for two lovers and three specters,” Georges evoked the spirit of Poe’s poem by having the “dead” Annabel Lee dance a simulation of life with her lover. At the same time as he was working on Annabel Lee, Georges choreographed a Pushkin poem, Le Prisonnier du Caucase, in which he incorporated many Russian folkloric elements to the music of Aram Khatchaturian. It, too, was danced by Georges and Marjorie and, at its premiere in Paris, received 18 curtain calls.



Ballet Dancers Performing
Georges Skibine and Marjorie Tallchief in Concerto, 1957
Ballet Dancers performing
Georges Skibine and Marjorie Tallchief in Concerto, 1957



















Ballet scholar Léon Nemenschousky considered Concerto, 1957, which Georges set to the music of the piano concerto of André Jolivet, a work that best embodied his choreography—one that combined romantic and expressionist elements in a new form of modern ballet. “Although based on the traditional poses of classical ballet, the steps invented by Skibine shock by their strange originality and their phrenic, brutal character. The figures emerge as a series of long, horizontal projections clashing together in a world where one can no longer breathe or hope.” (43-44) He reports that, in developing his individual brand of dance, Georges admitted to having been influenced by his war experiences, which had “left him with a conviction that the traditional ballet language of grace and tenderness is no longer pertinent in a world over which the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima hovers with hideous menace. We need, he thinks, a language harsh and strong, stripped of all niceties and pretensions which speaks the idiom of our time; that is the language Skibine is looking for.” (46-47) Skibine would work again with Jolivet’s music in 1961, this time choreographing Jolivet’s trumpet concerto.


On July 3, 1952, Marjorie gave birth to twin boys at the American hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Georges would refer to the boys as his pas de deux, and for the first four years of their lives Alexandre and Georges accompanied their parents on their tours with the Marquis de Cuevas Grand Ballet.


Then, after serving with that ballet company for nine years, Georges and Marjorie were engaged as premier dancers by the Paris Opera Ballet. For Majorie this was a special honor: she was the first American artist in 300 years to be named a star performer there. Georges was also engaged to work there and at the Opéra Comique as a choreographer. Marjorie said that she and Georges were especially grateful for these new positions, for what it would mean to their home life. They bought a small villa in Sèvres, on the outskirts of Paris, where, for the first time, they were able to have a fixed residence and a more normal family home life.


Before the contract took effect, however, they were engaged from November 1956 through April 1957 as star performers with the Ruth Page Chicago Opera Company; during this time the boys would live with their maternal grandparents in Fairfax, Oklahoma, learn English, and become acquainted with their Native American Heritage.


It was Georges and Marjorie’s first visit to the States in five years. They had been engaged to dance the lead roles in Ruth Page’s double production of Revenge (based on Verdi’s Il Trovatore) and The Merry Widow, by Franz Lehár. As Ruth Page explained it, the two works “contrast perfectly. One has a tragic story of gypsy revenge and the other is a humorous tale with enchanting waltzes.” The company took these two works on a coast-to-coast American tour. As the two principals in both pieces, it was “a grueling task” for Georges and Marjorie to “figure almost continuously throughout the production.” But, a critic noted at a November 30th performance in Buffalo, they carried it off “with apparent ease.” The very next day, however, 18 Georges suffered a pulled tendon and badly sprained ankle in his left leg and had to remain behind in Chicago under the care of a specialist, while Marjorie continued the tour without him. Another of de Cuevas’s dancers, Oleg Briansky, came to the rescue and completed the tour with Georges’s wife. Georges’s leg was held in a half cast for many weeks, and it wasn’t until early April that it had fully healed.


Marjorie and he planned to return to the States in October 1956 for a gala program that would climax Oklahoma’s semi-centennial celebration. At this program all five of Oklahoma’s native ballerinas would appear together for the first time. It would also be the first time that Marjorie and her sister Maria would appear on stage together. Fate intervened again; in late September Georges and Marjorie had to cancel their visit, because President René Coty of France had requested a performance on the same day as the Oklahoma festival. As premier dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, Georges and Marjorie were employees of the French government, and were required to perform at the President’s request.


It would not be until 1959 that the two dancers would finally be able to take the full tour of the United States together, returning as headliners in Ruth Page’s Chicago Opera Ballet, while their two boys again stayed with their maternal grandparents in Oklahoma.


In the meantime, the family had put down roots in their villa in Sèvres. Here Georges could indulge in his love of fast cars, tobacco, and sharpshooting. He had large collections of modern art and of recordings of modern classical music, and he and Marjorie shared a large rehearsal room. They always attended each other’s performances and always shared a kiss before the other claimed the stage. Afterwards, they critiqued each other’s performances—sometimes to Marjorie’s annoyance.



A family picture of husband, wife, cat, and two boys
Georges Skibine, Marjorie Tallchief, and twin sons Alexandre and Georges at their home in Sèvres, 1956

Georges now had even more triumphs behind him as Maître de Ballet at the Paris Opera. In addition to Jolivet’s Concerto, Georges had choreographed Isoline to music by André Messager, The Seven Deadly Sins to Bertolt Brecht’s scenario and music by Kurt Weill, and, finally Daphnis and Chloe to music by Ravel and settings and costumes by Chagall. He had danced leading roles in Giselle, The Firebird, and in his own productions of Idylle and Annabel Lee. He and Marjorie had toured Russia and performed at the Bolshoi Theatre; they had also performed at the Brussels International Exhibition, the International Festival in Granada, Spain, and the Edinburgh Festival,


and they had danced before newlyweds Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monaco on the Prince’s birthday. For this last occasion Georges created a new production, a detective story ballet called Embarrassing Encounters in which Marjorie played the role of a cat burglar who steals a fortune in diamond jewelry from a ‘gentleman’ burglar. The ballet’s story line playfully referenced Grace Kelly’s 1955 film To Catch a Thief.


On their American and Canadian tour, Georges and Marjorie were now required to perform lead roles in only one work each evening. For many venues they danced either in Revenge or in The Merry Widow. For others they danced either Idylle to Georges’s choreography, or Camille, Ruth Page’s new opera ballet, inspired by Verdi’s La Traviata. One critic wrote, “Those who seek more from ballet than comedy, plot or spectacle—in other words, emotion from motion—found ‘Idylle,’ with Francois Serrette’s music, the most satisfying portion of the evening.” Certainly, it was the most imaginative work, created for Marjorie and based on a story by Alwin Camble about “a wild black horse and a flashy circus horse vying for the love of a pretty white mare.”19 Another critic concurred, calling Idylle “one of the most effective modern ballets I have seen in many years,” with choreography that was “little short of inspired. This was modern ballet at its best.”20


Georges was also one of ballet’s most articulate defenders. When a critic in Vancouver suggested that ballet was “an effeminate art,” Georges replied that he was willing to match any male member of his ballet corps in any test of endurance with any member of the British Columbia Lions football team. He noted that “dancers are physically better trained, are stronger and have greater reserves of energy than football or hockey players.” One reason for this: “We never stop working. We train continually. But what happens to the football players out of season? They relax and get fat.”21


Certainly this was something Georges did not do. In 1960, Georges did the choreography for Debussy’s Claire de Lune, and, in addition to daily performances with the Paris Opera, he and Marjorie again performed at the Edinburgh Festival and, in December, at the Gala for the Royal Academy of Dance, followed up by a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II. In 1961 a highlight of the year was a performance at Versailles for President John and Jacqueline Kennedy. In keeping with the Versailles setting, Georges had created the work Sarabande to music by Couperin. He and Marjorie also performed at the 19th International Festival of Music and Dance in Granada, Spain.


In the summer of 1963 Georges and Marjorie performed at the Jacob’s Pillow Summer Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. Georges was now not only a sought-after dancer and choreographer, but also a ballet instructor. He had served as Ballet Master of the Paris Opera until 1962; he had then gone to Luebeck, Germany as Ballet Master at the Luebeck Opera. His skills did not escape the eye of Rebekah Harkness, a wealthy—and eccentric—American arts enthusiast whose foundation had supported the Robert Joffrey Ballet from 1962 to 1964. When Joffrey refused to give up sole control of the company and to change the name of the company to the Harkness Ballet, she withdrew all support from him and founded a new company, the Harkness Ballet, with Georges serving as its new Artistic Director. With $2 million in backing, the Harkness Foundation purchased a huge mansion in New York to serve both as home for the ballet company and as center for educational ventures. The foundation also held summer workshops at Watch Hill, Rhode Island. There, it was part of its mission to train company members, to encourage dancers to develop their latent choreographic skills, and to let resident choreographers experiment with students in developing new works. Contemporary composers also developed music for the dancers. Ballet students, on full scholarship, studied classical ballet, Martha Graham-style modern dance and jazz, character dancing (this latter course taught by Georges), music theory, instrument practice (to become acquainted with rhythm patterns) and learned the intricate system of recording choreography on paper. These workshops fueled new Harkness ballet productions.


After a repeat appearance at the Jacob’s Pillow Summer Dance Festival in 1964, Georges and Marjorie set up a home in New York City. One of the Harkness Company’s first ventures was a performance at the Johnson White House on Feb. 19, 1965, with Marjorie as its star performer.


As benefactress and founder of the company, Rebekah Harkness dictated much of the company’s planning. Its program, she determined, should feature American composers, including herself. One of these was a composition in-the-making under Harkness foundation sponsorship; it was written by part-Indian composer Louis Ballard. It was called Koshare, and was based on a Hopi myth of creation. The plan was that, as a partial Osage Indian, Marjorie would dance in the production. “I think,” Rebekah Harkness said, “that is about as American as we can get.”22 She arranged for the company to embark on a three-month tour in Europe in January 1965 and, the year after that, on a tour of South America. The company would not perform in the States, she said, until the spring of 1966.



Leon Fokine, Vera Volkova, Georges Skibine standing in front with a whole group of ballet Dancers in the back
Leon Fokine, Vera Volkova, Georges Skibine at the Harkness Ballet’s summer workshop in Watch Hill, RI, 1964

Georges gave up his own dancing when he took over the artistic direction of the Harkness Ballet, where he devoted himself to creating, with this American company, “a contemporary approach to classical ballet while developing a true 20th Century American style.”23 Marjorie was hired as the premier Harkness ballerina and continued to perform publicly.




The Harkness Ballet’s European tour opened in Cannes, followed by performances in Paris, Rome, Naples, West Berlin, Bucharest, and Lisbon.


During the summer of 1965 the three-month summer workshop at Watch Hill, Rhode Island hosted ten choreographers in the process of creating 11 ballets for the company. Dancers were trained by Vera Volkova, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, and by Leon Fokine, nephew of Michel Fokine. Other instructors taught jazz dance and the popular theatrical and cinematic forms of dance.


In October, the company then went on a 13-week tour in the United States, during which they performed in 30 different cities. In addition to resurrecting Idylle and introducing American audiences to his Daphnis et Chloe, Georges had choreographed two new numbers for the company: an expanded version of Sarabande, that he had created four years earlier for President Kennedy’s visit to Versailles, and Pas d’Action to motifs from Tschaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Critics noted that the Harkness Ballet was “the most elaborate and ambitious effort to emerge on the American dance scene in many years” and that it brought “a youthful verve and vitality” to dancing. Georges described the company as one “which cherishes the great tradition of classical ballet, fosters modern American ballet and heralds the dance of tomorrow.”24


Georges and Marjorie ended the year in Washington D.C., where Georges served as the Washington Ballet’s visiting artistic director of The Nutcracker, and Marjorie danced the role of the sugar plum fairy.


The 1966 Harkness program appeared to echo the previous year in terms of innovation and achievement. Georges contributed another new ballet to his long list of choreographic achievements: La Venta Quemada to music by Carlos Surinach. The company went on a spring tour to Europe, now expanded to include performances in North Africa and the Near East, and, after the summer workshop at Watch Hill, made another tour in the States, this time to include the west coast and Hawaii. There critics noted that each of the three ballets staged there was “based upon an entirely different choreographic approach. But artistic director Skibine threaded his pearls with invisible string. The result was a well-integrated program with no noticeable ‘change of gear’.”25


Georges was still listed as Artistic Director of the Harkness Ballet in the spring of 1967, but it seems that he was getting frustrated with the job. Rebekah Harkness had a reputation for making autocratic decisions regarding music and costumes for her ballets, and for taking artistic control away from her directors. As a Taylor Swift song puts it: “She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”26 Georges put the matter much more tactfully, saying, the ballet “was very well endowed by Mrs. Harkness, well enough to get the best dancers available. But working with such a system is all the time trying to make a single unit out of individual dancers, and that kind of thing doesn’t exist. I think if you start with a school, that’s a better way.”27 The newspapers began to take notice of apparent tension between him and Rebekah Harkness. The Chicago Tribune stated, at the end of the company’s American tour in March, that “no one seems to know what the future holds.[…] As for George Skibine—his name produced as deep a silence on the part of company spokesmen as Robert Joffrey’s.”28 One sign of the tensions between the two was the premiere of Georges’s new ballet, La Peri with the National Ballet of Washington rather than with the Harkness.


Georges and Marjorie spent the summer at their home in France; when they returned to the States in September, the ballet world learned that Georges had accepted the position of Artistic Director of the Louisville Civic Ballet in Kentucky. Here Georges was given the full autonomy that he desired: as teacher, choreographer, director, and even occasional dancer.



Georges talking to a male ballet dancer and two female ballet dancers while a group is dancing in the back
Georges Skibine instructing dancers at the Louisville Civic Ballet, 1967

Georges held auditions for new dancers, especially for young men, since a number of former company members had rebelled against Georges’s demands of complete discipline and gone to other companies. Meanwhile Georges subjected the company members to 200 hours of strenuous rehearsals in preparation for his first public production. “It’s amazing,” one veteran member of the company said, “how Skibine can bring out the best in each person. I’ve seen some of the dancers do things I didn’t know they could do—and I don’t think they knew it, either.” Other company members spoke about the “insights” Georges gave then on how to approach their roles. His training was designed, by repeating intricate steps over and over, to bring the novices in the company up to a professional level.29


Georges’s training was noticed. When the Civic Ballet gave its opening season performance on November 12, “the entire company shed its fledgling days and danced with a new maturity and considerable more assurance than it has in the past.” The critic remarked that all of this “reflects an enormous accomplishment by George Skibine in his debut as artistic director and choreographer of the Civic Ballet.” He had “infused his Louisville dancers with a new professionalism that made each of last night’s three classics quite special and exciting.” The program featured three works, all choreographed by Georges: Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque Tschaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and Stravinsky’s Firebird, with Majorie in the starring role. Commenting on the choreography, the critic added that the quality “in all three was of an unusual excellence. He took into account the limitations of the newer members of the Civic Ballet, yet gave the leading dancers of the company an opportunity to reveal their diverse and growing abilities.”30


That same year Oklahoma celebrated the 60th anniversary of its statehood with an Oklahoma Indian Ballet festival and performances by four of its five “moons,” or native world-class ballerinas. Marjorie had had to back out of the 50th anniversary gathering; now it was her sister Maria who was omitted from the program, since she had retired from dancing. The program featured four solo acts and a pas de quatre by the four stars. In the solo pieces, each ballerina made her own presentation that recreated the spirit of her particular tribe: Shawnee, Choctaw, Osage, and Cherokee. Georges choreographed Marjorie’s performance, which was “regal, proud and displayed a feeling of arrogant spirit as the Osage.”31 Another highlight of the evening occurred when Georges made a rare appearance on the dance stage, partnering with Marjorie in his ballet Annabel Lee.


Georges’s second year at the Louisville Civic Ballet was highlighted in November 1968 by his new ballet production of Charles Koechlin’s Les Bandar-Log, which was based on Kipling’s Jungle Book stories and featured Marjorie as the black panther Bagheera. “And thirty or so members of the City Ballet danced with a flair and control they haven’t exhibited before—also thanks to Skibine,” a critic noted. 32


But, in spite of Georges’s notable success, he left Louisville for Dallas in 1969, to become Artistic Director of the Dallas Civic Ballet. The move was a conscious decision to establish a permanent new home, this time one in the American Southwest.


In Dallas Georges not only provided choreography for ballet programs, but also choreographed the dance numbers for the works produced by the Dallas Civic Opera. And he taught ballet at North Texas State University, all the while continuing to travel regularly to Europe and South America to serve as guest Artistic Director for ballet programs in Oslo, Milan, Paris, London, and Buenos Aires.


Not all critics treated Georges’s efforts in the ballet kindly, and found some of his productions derivative of popular musicals and even of swimmer Esther Williams’ aquatic spectaculars. In the end, though, most had to agree that “His has always been a modern underscoring of classic technique, and he handles lyric moments with inventiveness and fine skill.”33


One example of his inventiveness and fine skill was the special choreography of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet that he provided to an aging Margot Fonteyn. Georges explained his work by saying, “You only choreograph by working with the dancers who are going to be in the ballet. The person you are working with is your inspiration to do whatever you do.”34


In 1975 Georges was engaged by the French government to organize a ballet company in the city of Reims. This company would not only present home performances, but would also tour Paris, Europe, and the Middle East. Georges agreed to spend two months of each year in France, supervising the company. During his absence, Marjorie assumed direction of the Dallas Civic Ballet.


And, that very same year, Georges and Marjorie realized their plans for turning the Dallas Civic Ballet into a professional ballet company, with an accompanying ballet academy for training future star performers. Instead of having to rely on recorded music, this company would now be supported by live musicians, and tour throughout the Southwest. Georges was Artistic Director, and Marjorie was named Associate Director. She had stopped performing publicly in 1973, and had already been actively leading guest workshops and special classes in ballet throughout the southwest.


Under Georges and Marjorie’s leadership, the Dallas Ballet developed a national reputation for its “versatility of style” and the “quality of its performances.” Critics agreed that Georges managed to transform “a provincial group” into “a polished ballet company,” with a repertoire of over 20 ballets, most of them by living choreographers, many by choreographer/dancers associated with the Dallas Ballet. One of them, Rodwic Fukino, had only the highest praise for Georges’s direction. He found the atmosphere in the company studio particularly congenial to developing new works: “This is a calm place, which I like. We don’t have a lot of the jealousy and the fierce competition over roles that you have in larger companies. Our company is more like a big family.”35


Marjorie served as Director of the Academy associated with the Dallas Ballet Company. Both she and Georges taught there, thereby fulfilling Georges’s aims of having a school to provide dancers for the corps of the ballet and, in some cases, star performers. “I don’t object to bringing in star dancers for performances,” he said, “because everyone can learn from them. But if you have nothing but star dancers [in your company] you can’t build a style […]. With a school, when you train your dancers and bring them up yourself, you develop a company personality, and that feeling of personality, of teamwork, can be felt across the footlights.” And, “With a young, small company, there is room to move up, you retain the enthusiasm, the dancers feel that the company is their own.” Critics sat up and took note: even his toughest critic, Leonard Eureka, admitted that “the whole company exudes a sense of style and joy […].”36




Marjorie and Geroges looking off to left smiling and talking
Marjorie Tallchief and Georges Skibine, 1979

Under Georges’s leadership, the Dallas Ballet became a polished, professional company of 21 dancers who gave performances throughout the southwestern United States. By working with eight or nine different choreographers, Georges was able to mount varied programs of contrasting styles, designed to appeal to a variety of tastes. The Dallas Ballet danced to the music of Haydn, Ravel, and Tschaikovsky, but also to that of Don Raye and Hughie Prince’s World War II hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and to rock music performed by St. Elmo’s Fire.


Often Georges choreographed pieces designed to suit the setting of these performances. For a convention of the Texas Federation of Music Clubs, for example, Georges choreographed a piece called The Dance in the Brazos Brakes to a text by a Texas poet and original music by a Texas composer—a ballet that interpreted the characteristic movements of Texas wildlife: possums, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, armadillos, etc. For a performance given at the inauguration of tapestries whose large, central panel portrayed the final chapter of Scheherazade, Georges choreographed a dance to Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece of music by that name. For a French Day celebration he provided new choreography for Offenbach’s Gaîté Parisienne. For America’s bicentennial he choreographed Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis as a “dancing parade” reflecting the era of Lafayette. He reshaped the choreography of The Nutcracker for a cast of over 150 dancers for annual performances of the company, and refined the choreography to some of his old war horses: Daphnis and Chloe, for example, and The Firebird.  


Georges’s drive and creativity never wavered, but his body finally did. In December 1980 he was diagnosed with Guillian-Barre syndrome, a rare condition that attacked his central nervous system and caused weakness and partial paralysis. He was hospitalized, then released shortly before Christmas. He died at his home on January 15, 1981.



Beverley Driver Eddy

January 2024



Citations

________________________________________


  1. Although Americans would spell his name “George,” I have opted to keep the preferred French spelling of his name,—“Georges”— except when quoting from other writers.

  2. “George Skibine, 60, Dancer Since Age of 5 and Choreographer,” New York Times, 16 Jan. 1981, Section D, 17. Unless otherwise noted all the material on Georges Skibine up to 1955—except for wartime experiences, which are based on materials on loan from Skibine’s son— is taken from Michael Glotz, George Skibine, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1955. All translations from this French text are my own.

  3. Michel Glotz, George Skibine, 14.

  4. “A New Ballet,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1940, 11.

  5. “Andrea’s Page Two,” The Sun [Sydney], 4 Aug. 1940, 2.

  6. “Across the Stage,” The Daily Telegraph [Sydney], 4 Aug. 1940, 22.

  7. Olga Philippov, “The Making of a Ballet,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 July 1940, 14.

  8. “Ballet Russe Tour Limited, The Los Angeles Times, 28 Sept. 1940, 28.

  9. Michel Glotz, George Skibine, 25.

  10. See Lexington Davis, “Chagall in Mexico and the Making of ‘Aleko’, “ Unframed [LACMA blog], 27 Dec., 2023. https://unframed.lacma.org/2017/11/02/chagall-mexico-and-making-aleko

  11. Georges Sabine’s Separation Qualification Record. In private hands.

  12. Léon Nemenschousky, A Day with Marforie Tallchief and Georges Skibine, tr. Margaret McGregor, Cassell & Company Ltd, 1960, 12.

  13. Letter from Captain A. W. Adler to the Office of Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, at SHAEF, 12 June 1945. Letter in private hands.

  14. Marquis G. de Cuevas, “Foreword,” in Léon Nemenschousky, A Day with Marforie Tallchief and Georges Skibine.

  15. Marquis G. de Cuevas, “Foreword.”

  16. “Ballet Stars Gained Great Honors Abroad,” St. Joseph News-Press (Missouri), 35.

  17. “Chicago Opera Ballet: Tallchief, Skibine Dance at Center on Wednesday. Ledger-Dispatch and Star (Norfolk-Portsmouth, VA), 19 Jan. 1957, 2.

  18. J.D., “Ballet Lovers Applaud Zest of Chicago Troupe,” The Buffalo News (NY), 1 Dec. 1956, 16.

  19. Ogden Dwight, “Opera Ballet Ends Season, Des Moines Sunday Register, 22 Mar. 1959, Local Section 3-L.

  20. Buy Thackeray, “Chicago Ballet Presents Dazzling New Art, Talent,” Tucson Daily Citizen, 29 Jan. 1959, 31.

  21. “Lions Challenged: ‘Ballet Tougher Than Football,” The Vancouver Sun, 23 Feb. 1959, 11.

  22. Derick M. Winship, “Shakedown in Europe: Harkness Funds Will Back New American Ballet Troup,” Alexandria Daily Town Talk (LA), 31 Dec. 1964, 17.

  23. Ruth Heimbuecher, “Dancers Get Tender Care,” The Pittsburgh Press, 24 Jan. 1967, 15.

  24. “Ballet Review: Dance Group Performs Ably,” Tallahassee Democrat (FL), 28 Oct. 1965, 16.

  25. “Ballet Elegant and Sizzles, Too,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 25 Sept. 1966, 2

  26. Taylor Swift, “The Last Great American Dynasty,” 2020.

  27. John Dorsey, “His language is dance, not words,” The Baltimore Sun, 13 Mar. 1977, 55.

  28. “Harkness Ballet Ends Engagement,” The Chicago Tribune, 13 March 1967, 60.

  29. Jean Dietrich, “Marjorie Tallchief Civic Ballet Guest in Saturday Opener,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), 5 Nov. 1967.

  30. Jean Dietrich, “Civic Ballet’s Maturity, Assurance Win Crowd,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), 12 Nov. 1967.

  31. Joe Broady, “Oklahoma Heritage Spices Theme of Ballet,” The Daily Oklahoman, 30 Oct. 1967, 21.

  32. Jean Dietrich, “Dance Review: Louisville Ballet Gives a True Gala,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), 10 Nov. 1968, 37.

  33. Doria Avila, “Dallas Ballet Ho-Humdinger,” The Monitor (McAllen, TX), 5 Oct. 1980, 14.

  34. John Dorsey, “His language is dance, not words, The Baltimore Sun, 13 Mar. 1977, 53.

  35. David Connelly, “Dallas Dancer Set to ‘Fly’ in Shreveport,” Shreveport Journal (LA), 12 May, 1980, 21.

  36. Leonard Eureka, “‘Nutcracker’ productions compared,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 9 Jan. 1977, 101.

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