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New York City Ballet

'Apollo', 'Square Dance', 'Agon'

by Jerry Hochman

May 7, 2011 -- David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY

When I first started attending ballet performances, which was shortly before I became a
balletomaniac, I considered George Balanchine’s choreography to be an acquired taste.
The only Balanchine pieces I really liked I found out later had been choreographed by
Jerome Robbins.

But familiarity breeds greater familiarity, and perhaps a little wisdom (just perhaps), and
the more I came to be exposed to Balanchine, the more I appreciated and thought I
understood his genius. I may not love all of Balanchine’s creations (audience
appreciation is not as irrelevant a concept as purists may think), but many I’ve grown to
treasure. “Apollo” is one of them. Classical and modern, intelligent and strikingly
beautiful, it is as pure and timeless as a sunrise in a cloudless sky. If
Balanchine’s “Serenade” is the ballet equivalent of caviar as comfort food, as I once
described, then “Apollo” is the ballet equivalent of eau de vie as chicken soup for the
soul (organic, of course) – crystal clear, refined, purified, and intoxicating.

“Apollo” was the beginning of a program of three of Balanchine’s pieces, which were
part of a week-long celebration/commemoration of Balanchine’s black-and-white ballets.
Aside from being beautifully crafted examples of Balanchine’s neoclassical
style, “Apollo,” together with “Square Dance” and “Agon,” illustrate his extraordinary
stylistic evolution from choreographing a story distilled to its essence to choreographing
a concept distilled to its essence. While his black-and-white ballets do not represent the
totality of Balanchine’s output any more than Picasso’s blue period is representative of
his (think “Prodigal Son,” “Serenade,” “Jewels,” “Bugaku,” “La Sonnambula,” “A
Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Ballo della Regina,” “La Valse,” “Tchaikovsky Suite No.
3”/”Theme and Variations,” “Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze,” among his huge
and multi-faceted choreographic oeuvre, the common denominator being that they’re all
uniquely extraordinary). But I cannot disagree that, in the overall scheme of things, his
black-and -white ballets may be the most important, and “Apollo” perhaps the most
important of them all.

Apollo, of course, is the Greek sun god, the god of light. The son of Zeus and Leto (Zeus
came to Leto in the guise of a swan – I wonder if he knew Rothbart?), Apollo, like other
gods, had many attributes and functions, recognized as a variety of epithets. As sun god,
he is Apollo Aegletes. As patron (god) of music and the arts, he is referenced as Apollo
Musagetes, which is roughly translated as leader of the muses – who are variously
described as goddesses (demi or otherwise) or sylphs, and acknowledged as the
embodiment of, or sources of inspiration for, forms of the arts, including literature,
drama, poetry, music, and dance (and the root origin for, among others, the
words ‘music,’ ‘amuse,’ and ‘museum’). The ballet “Apollo” is a story of the genesis of
Apollo Musagetes, but it is also the story of the genesis of Apollo Aegletes. Some
sources say that Apollo Aegletes is a role he acquired late in his mythological career –
after he became ‘enlightened’ – and it is this aspect of the myth that propels the ballet
and forms the climax of Balanchine’s vision.

Balanchine’s Apollo, to a score created by Igor Stravinsky (apparently in collaboration
with Balanchine), emerges from birth as an immature god (in this version, the
visualization of Apollo’s actual birth, which was part of the piece when it was created,
had been deleted at Balanchine’s direction, and with Stravinsky’s approval) – all strength
and beauty and power, but without purpose. The muses give Apollo a purpose, a center
of gravity and a sense of mission. Whether Apollo created them, simply encountered
them, or they were directed to him by other Olympian forces is unclear. But what is
perfectly clear is that Apollo matures as a god through his relationship with the three

That “Apollo” is the oldest surviving Balanchine ballet, that it catapulted Balanchine’s
choreographic career, and that it marks a turning point in ballet history, are well-known.
But “Apollo” is as much evolutionary as revolutionary. As is well-documented,
Balanchine considered himself to be an heir to Petipa. And in a sense, one can
see “Apollo” as a distillation of the kind of formulaic story-based ballets that Petipa
created. Take out the glitz and the focused (and at times forced) virtuosity, and most (but
not all) the emotion, and you have “Apollo.” Sort of. But unlike Fokine’s “Les
Sylphides,” which preceded “Apollo” by nearly twenty years and is considered
revolutionary in that it is the first recognized ‘plotless’ ballet, “Apollo” is not just
revolutionary because it lacks a recognizable plot; it is revolutionary at its core – and
although it contains a libretto of sorts and is not without emotion, it is a story, and
choreography that conveys that story, each pared to its essence, and must have been a
breath of fresh air (as well as a ray of sunshine) to its audience, even with the original
costumes and sets. [At last night’s performance, I thought I saw a passing snap-shot
reference to “Les Sylphides,” with Apollo as a god-poet and the muses as sylphs. And, as
I subsequently rediscovered, Fokine choreographed “Les Sylphides,” for Diaghelev’s
Ballet Russes, and a slightly earlier version, perhaps more closely related
to “Chopiniana,” was presented in 1907 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersberg. Of
course, it was for the Ballet Russes that Balanchine choreographed “Apollo Musagete”
(its original title), and Balanchine was a product of the Mariinsky. Either at the
Mariinsky or with the Ballet Russes, Balanchine had to have had knowledge of “Les
Sylphides” (as did Stravinsky, who worked on the reorchestration of “Les Sylphides” in
connection with its Ballet Russes production in 1909). Perhaps in some way, “Apollo”
can be seen as response to “Les Sylphides”? But that’s a thesis for another day.] .

From Apollo’s first sculpture-like appearance on stage, until the final striking emblem of
Apollo as the god of light, enhanced and completed by each of his muses, “Apollo” is a
choreographed collection of unforgettable images, either moving in space or frozen in a
perpetual pose, with not one step or gesture too many or too few. The visualisation of the
energy force that flows through his body (the famous opening/closing of Apollo’s hands,
to me, is a representation of this energy force), and which also flows from him to them
and from them to him (the ‘Michelangelo finger-tip-touch’ pose), is an example of such
an indelible image. And although Balanchine choreographs Apollo as seemingly
rejecting the muses of poetry (Calliope) and tragedy or pantomime (Polyhymnia) in favor
of the muse of music and dance (Terpsichore), this appears to me to be not so much
rejection as preference (Apollo was just following his bliss) – and also a convenient and
opportunistic way to focus the action and development in the ballet that Balanchine was
creating. Indeed, it would be difficult to conclude that Apollo really rejects Polyhymnia
and Calliope, because they, together with Terpsichore, meld with Apollo (albeit behind
him) into the ballet’s final vision of the completed sun god. [That there were purportedly
nine muses, not three, and that their artistic attributes can be seen as overlapping
(Polyhymnia is also referenced as the muse of sacred poetry, and of music, song and
dance and inventor of the lyre) is immaterial.]

But if “Apollo” were only grist for intellectual analysis, it would be less than it is. The
movement quality is alternatively light and airy and vital and noble, and it is as fresh and
modern today as it must have been when it premiered in 1928 – indeed, although
generally accepted as an example of Balanchine’s neoclassical style, it includes hand
gestures, contractions, slides, and other movements that break classical ballet parameters
and seem to anticipate, among others, Martha Graham.

Apollo is usually portrayed as a clean-shaven, athletic, typically blond, boy-god. In
Chase Finlay, NYCB has found a dancer who not only looks like a young Apollo should
look, but dances the role with a level of technical competence and character
comprehension that would be remarkable in a more mature dancer. He does not have the
nobility that Peter Martins brought to the role, or quite the youthful seriousness that I
recall seeing in Mikhail Baryshnikov, but in a sense he is more “Apollo-like” than either
of them. His performance, his second (he debuted in the role a couple of nights earlier)
was not what I would call perfect, which is easier to say than to describe, but the fact that
I mention Mr. Finlay, a member of the NYCB corps, in the same sentence as Mr. Martins
and Mr. Baryshnikov speaks volumes as to the quality of his performance as Apollo.

The piece received equally memorable performances from the three muses: Ana Sophia
Scheller’s Calliope, Tiler Peck’s Polyhymnia, and particularly Sterling Hyltin’s
Terpsichore. As Apollo’s chosen muse (perhaps somewhat akin to Paris’s selection of
Aphrodite; these myths do tend to run together, don’t they?), Ms. Hyltin delivered the
seductive vulnerability and knowing innocence that makes for a wonderfully nuanced
performance that takes an audience (or, at least, this member of the audience) beyond just
seeing beautifully executed steps; and just like Apollo, the audience (or, at least this
member of the audience) was buying whatever she was selling.

“Square Dance,” which premiered in 1957, represents an extension of the distillation
Balanchine first created in “Apollo.” Not nearly as significant a work, “Square Dance” is
Balanchine’s balletic translation of American folk-dance, pared to its essence. Indeed, at
times, the outlines of stereotypical four-cornered square dance patterning are evident.
Like “Apollo,” Balanchine tinkered with “Square Dance” after its premiere, deleting the
square dance caller who called out the steps and removing the on-stage musicians. So
cleansed, “Square Dance” seems now to have only a tangential connection to a square
dance, and, to this viewer, something was lost in the transition. Ashley Bouder and
Taylor Stanley anchored the exuberant presentation.

“Agon,” which also debuted in 1957 (roughly a month after “Square Dance” in its
original form), is another Balanchine masterwork. But where “Apollo” feels
Athenian, “Agon” feels Spartan.

Although ‘Agon’ is the Greek word for “contest,” it has no plotline or hint of a subject,
no sense of a contest or even of simple competition. But it is more than bodies moving
through space. It is simply a collection of choreographed re-interpretations of French
dances of the mid-17th Century, which Balanchine molds into a rich, balanced, and
coherent vision, albeit a plotless one. The performance was ably led by Wendy Whelan,
Teresa Reichlen, Sebastien Marcovici, and Andrew Veyette.

In this final collaboration with Stravinsky, Balanchine’s genius (at least as communicated
in his black-and-white ballets), can be seen to have journeyed from distillation of a story
to distillation of a concept. But the absence of a subject, other than the subject being
dance itself, does not make “Agon” any less of a brilliant piece of work – just a little
more difficult to love.

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