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Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease: George Balanchine
“We dare go into a world where there are no names for anything,” George Balanchine once said to his fellow choreographer Jerome Robbins, speaking of his life's work in dance. He couldn't have known that this remark would also apply to his brief but harrowing struggle with prion disease.
At the height of his powers, Balanchine was the greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century. A spirited man described by one observer as “both cool and ardent, sad and full of fun, arrogant and modest," he conceived whole ballets in his head and remained calm in the most chaotic of rehearsals.
Then, in the fall of 1982, he was stricken with a mysterious illness. The first symptoms were relatively mild: blurred vision, bouts of dizziness, periods of sudden anger. In a matter of weeks his balance became so poor that he needed to grasp the curtain to avoid falling as he bowed. By winter Balanchine had lost the powers of sight and speech. In a period of weeks the great dance maker had become a husk of his former self.
“I’m finished, I can’t see anymore, I can’t hear, I walk like a drunken man," Balanchine said near the end of his life. Yet he never gave up on his craft. On his death bed in the spring of 1983, he tapped his fingers against one another slowly, whispering: “You see, I’m making steps.”
Balanchine never knew the cause of his own illness. But as he was dying, a new science of infectious proteins was emerging in the laboratory of Dr. Stanley Prusiner at UCSF. It was later confirmed that Balanchine had suffered from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, caused by infectious proteins known as prions. The IND has since made great strides in understanding prion disease in the search for a cure.