Several hundred people crowded into a Russian Orthodox chapel in New York last night for a memorial Mass for George Balanchine, head of the New York City Ballet for 35 years.

Balanchine, 79, died Saturday of pneumonia in New York.

Mourners holding small candles stood in a semicircle around the casket in a sanctuary at Our Lady of the Sign as Father Adrian conducted the liturgy in Russian, accompanied by a choir.

A second memorial Mass will be held today, with the main funeral service tomorrow.

Balanchine has been acknowledged as the "greatest mentor" and foremost choreographer of the 20th century.

"It's a great loss to the dance world," said Robert Joffrey, in Los Angeles with his ballet company. "He had given us so much. He has created so many ballets. Those will live on."

"At the very first concert we ever did, in 1954, Mr. Balanchine came to look at my choreography," said Joffrey. "He and Lincoln Kirstein loaned me $500 to help pay for the orchestra. When I went back to pay them many years later, they said no, it was a gift. I'll always remember that generosity.

"Anyone who worked with him will never forget what he's done for dance. He's touched so many, inspired so many, given them so much. He's done more for American ballet than anyone. He has focused it and put it on the map."

"It's one of dance's greatest losses," said choreographer Gerald Arpino in Los Angeles. "He is the most vital and greatest mentor. He will inspire all of us to continue in his legacy.

"He's the greatest choreographer of the 20th century."

Lincoln Kirstein, who with Balanchine founded the New York City Ballet and is now director of the company, said, "Although Mr. Balanchine is no longer with us, the body of his repertoire has its own permanent life. Not only in performances by his own company, but wherever, all over the world, his works may be seen."

"Balanchine has been a brilliant light in the dance world," said dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. "We treasure in our memories the gifts he has given us.

"I remember Lincoln Kirstein saying dance was glorified human behavior," Graham said, "and nowhere was this more evident than in Balanchine's works--in their elegance, musicality and sense of honor to the dance."

"The genius of George Balanchine will leave an indelible imprint on ballet and on the arts," said Martin Segal, chairman of the board of Lincoln Center in New York.