The Russian-born composer, conductor and pianist Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) remains, five decades after his death, a towering figure in 20th century music. If he had written the music for only one of the three ballets for which he is best known — The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) — he would still be celebrated today. That he wrote all three of those masterpieces, in the space of just a few years, ensures his musical immortality.
Here, on the great musician’s birthday (b. June 17, 1882, in Lomonosov, Russia), LIFE.com pays tribute to Stravinsky through photos made in 1972 by Gjon Mili. The pictures capture dancers from George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet as they bring to life a series of dance works — 21 of them, based on Stravinsky’s music — created by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
This tribute to Stravinsky, who died a year ago [wrote LIFE magazine in June 1972], was also a triumph for Balanchine, whose mastery of the dance is undiminished at 68. He personally created eight of the new ballets and collaborated with Jerome Robbins on another. “The important thing in ballet,” Balanchine says, “is movement itself,” a thought that photographer Gjon Mili vividly expresses in his photographs.