- Un-Voicing Orpheus:The Powers of Music in Stravinsky and Balanchine’s “Greek” Ballets
I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.—Ovid, Metamorphoses1
For many of George Balanchine’s admirers, the ballets Apollon musagète and Orpheus, created in collaboration with Stravinsky, epitomize his achievements: dance that is at once thoroughly classical and thoroughly modern; choreography in ideal counterpoint to music.2 Yet the same works have also drawn stinging criticisms. Though Apollon was generally well received, some members of the 1928 audience were appalled to see Terpsichore herself defy the laws of classical dance by walking with flexed hands and feet. According to legend, one irate spectator cornered the choreographer after the performance and demanded, “When have you ever seen Apollo on his knees?” (To which Balanchine countered, “When have you ever seen Apollo?”)3 Balanchine’s treatments of Orpheus sparked even more hostility. At the Metropolitan Opera in 1936, he raised the ire of singers and audiences alike with a staging of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice that consigned singers to the orchestra pit and reserved the stage for silent dancers. The production brought his tenure as ballet master at the Met to a speedy end.4 Twelve years later, critics and audiences reacted less with anger than with puzzlement to Balanchine and Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus, which, although now revered, is still seldom performed. Among its troubling features is the fact that the greatest singer of all time has no singing voice in it at all.
The most common complaint against Orpheus is not, however, that the hero does not sing, but that he does not dance enough.5 He walks, he pantomimes, he collapses, he stands motionless on stage for nearly three minutes, but he does little that looks like dancing, and even less that could properly be called ballet. What bothers the skeptics, in other words, has nothing to do with verisimilitude and everything to do with genre. The so-called ballet breaks what Daniel Albright gives as the definition of genre: a “contract between the artist and the consumer, an agreement that [End Page 101] certain means will be employed in the pursuit of specific aesthetic pleasures.”6 For the consumer of ballet, this contract promises dancing of a certain kind—bodies regulated in a particular way, and interacting according to prescribed rules of etiquette—and even admirers of Orpheus acknowledge that in this work Balanchine betrays the agreement. Nancy Goldner points out that, instead of "'real’ dancing, with the dancers’ bodies held high and proud and taut,” the style of Orpheus calls for gesture that “goes against the grain of the dancers’ training,” while Charles Joseph concedes that “Orpheus is not so much a ballet as . . . what some see as a hybrid of modern dance and theater.”7 For the critical viewer of Apollo, too, genre was the real issue. It did not matter that the gentleman had never actually seen a Greek god; he had seen classical ballet, and thus knew for certain that a premier danseur does not fall to his knees in the middle of a solo variation.
What is most significant about these reactions is that viewers should raise such objections at all: by 1928 Parisian spectators had seen frequent and far more extreme violations of the codes of classical dance on the Ballets Russes stages, and by 1948 American dance audiences had been exposed to even more radical innovations in movement vocabulary and in music-movement relations. The fact that anyone would even be tempted to invoke the rules signals that Balanchine (and Stravinsky) were deliberately reminding us of the conventions they were breaking, raising generic expectations only to defy them. Certainly the publics for both the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and Balanchine’s Ballet Society in the 1940s were accustomed to seeing modern, even experimental works performed alongside ballets in a thoroughly classical style. Balanchine’s Greek ballets, however, seem to uphold and to...