Few artistic partnerships in history have been as fruitful as that of George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine choreographed at least 45 ballets to Stravinsky’s music—some of them commissions, some of them-preexisting scores. Many rank among the greatest works in 20th-century dance. To honor this historic collaboration, New York City Ballet opened its fall season with two weeks of Stravinsky-Balanchine repertory, starting with the so-called “Greek trilogy”: Apollo (1928), Orpheus (1948), and Agon (1957).
These three ballets, according to publicity materials, “are linked through the ideas and mythology of Ancient Greece.” Though Greek myths of course inspired the stories behind Apollo and Orpheus, refracted through abstract modernism, the choreography and music seem anything but ancient. The link to classical Greece is mostly in their statuesque sensibility, rather than overt dance themes.
The triptych does, however, tell volumes about the Stravinsky and Balanchine collaboration. It shows their partnership’s oldest surviving work (Apollo), its creative peak (Agon), and one of its lulls (Orpheus). The three ballets also demonstrate how both artists were always in the business of self-reinvention. Who would have guessed that Stravinsky, who composed Apollo’s score in the traditional French style of 17th and 18th centuries, would throw himself into the radical realm of serial music with Agon? Or that Balanchine, whose choreography for Apollo was so athletic and buoyant, would devise a more gesture-laden vocabulary for Orpheus?
When Balanchine made Apollo, he was a 24-year-old choreographer working for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. (By this time, Stravinsky had already composed two of his most enduring compositions, The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, for the fabled company.) Balanchine had already convinced Diaghilev and others of his potential, but he described Apollo (then titled Apollon Musagète) as a critical turning point in his career. “In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation,” he said. “It seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I, too, could eliminate.”
It’s fitting, then, that Apollo is not only about a young god but also about a young choreographer. Shortly after Apollo’s first solo variation, in which he discovers the joys of dancing, three muses—Terpsichore (the muse of dance), Polyhymnia (mime), and Calliope (poetry)—appear at corners of the stage, approach him in canon with grand battements, but then allow Apollo to place them as he wishes and propel them in bourrée. The muses coax Apollo across the stage, and then the tables are turned again: He takes their hands and supports them in a series of split steps. The relationship between Apollo and the muses is a symbiotic one, not unlike the relationship Balanchine would have with his leading ballerinas throughout his career.
Audiences at City Ballet are fortunate to have two wonderful dancers—Chase Finlay and Robert Fairchild—currently dancing the title role. The stronger of the two—for now—is Fairchild, who finds the right balance of godly grace and youthful athleticism. Finlay’s interpretation has in many ways become more sophisticated since he first danced Apollo in spring of 2011, but at the September 23 performance his jumps were often too reckless. Since a newborn god should retain a little of this impulsiveness, these may just be growing pains.
By the time Agon premiered—almost 30 years after Apollo—Balanchine had pioneered the idea of the “plotless” ballet through works such as Serenade, Concerto Barocco, and The Four Temperaments. Agon took the form in another, entirely unique direction. It’s a many-sided work, a thrilling bundle of contradictions. Its steps put a modern twist on the danse d’ecole, but it also includes several glimpses of European court dancing. Agon is also a mathematical work, playing with the possibilities of the number 12: Balanchine divides the cast of 12 dancers into duets, trios, and group numbers; Stravinsky composed the score in the 12-tone mode; the dancing and music unfold over 12 sections.
Agon’s abrupt changes of rhythm and fast canons create an atmosphere of tension, which was heightened in the ballet’s first performances by the dancers’ unfamiliarity with the material. Rarely does Agon, now a ballet standard, thrill at City Ballet these days. (This might also have something to do with the counting of the steps. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s dancers, who count differently, retain more of an edge.)
Maria Kowroski was instrumental in bringing some of that risk back to the pas de deux (with Amar Ramasar on September 23 and Sebastien Markovici on September 24). As she pulls her leg back into penchée on point, the audience holds its breath. Other standouts included Teresa Reichlen, hostile yet flirtatious in the “Bransle gay,” and Sean Suozzi, who brings the right amount of bluster to the first pas de trois.
While Apollo and Agon show few signs of aging, the same cannot be said of Orpheus, which Balanchine choreographed for his earlier company Ballet Society. When it premiered, it was a critical and box office sensation. In addition to a commissioned Stravinsky score, the ballet boasted sets and costumes by Isamu Noguchi, the artist who achieved great renown for his work with Martha Graham. After watching a rehearsal of the ballet, New York City Center chairman Morton Baum was so taken with it that he invited Ballet Society to become a resident company, the New York City Ballet.
It’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about in 1948. The choreography is muted and focuses on Noguchi’s props—a bow, masks, and a lyre—and the action moves at an almost glacial pace. Noguchi’s set design—anchored by three large stones that glow and float upward as Orpheus descends into Hades—are attractive, but his costumes look both dated and crass. (Eurydice wears what appear to be saucers as figleaves.)
The dancers do the best they can with the material. At the September 23 performance, Markovici brought quiet intensity to the title role, and Savannah Lowery, as the leader of the bacchantes, breathed life into the death scene with her sharp kicks. It might not be entirely enjoyable, but Orpheus is still a ballet worth seeing. Even today, its historical importance is commemorated by the use of the Noguchi lyre as City Ballet’s symbol. In an age when both established and burgeoning choreographers have to compete with their daunting legacy, Orpheus is a reminder that even a work created by two geniuses can fail to stand the test of time.