- God Dances in New York City
It was uncanny. Last November at New York City Center, where the New York City Ballet danced from 1946 (initially as Ballet Society) until Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater opened in 1964, it might have been 1957. George Balanchine’s 1928 Apollo, his earliest surviving ballet, unfolded as it must have looked sixty years ago, with Apollo in black tights instead of the current white, and the god’s opening birth scene and the concluding ascent up Mount Olympus restored. Balanchine often talked of Apollo as his first lesson in modernist streamlining—Stravinsky’s spare score, for string orchestra, taught him “I could dare not use everything, and I, too, could eliminate.” In 1979 he eliminated even more. He discarded the eight-minute birth sequence and Apollo’s final Olympian climb up a spidery staircase, instead ending the ballet with its famous sunburst image: Apollo, in right profile, reaching up to his invisible fellow gods, while Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore, his three muses, lean upon his body, legs extended backward, respectively, in low, level, and high arabesque, all framed by a red circle of light. These excisions marked the last in a long series of changes. André Bauchant’s original Henri Rousseau-like backdrop had disappeared by the 1940s, for example, and his original Greekish costumes had yielded to a series of outfits by a series of costumers, finally arriving, in 1957, at the official minimalist uniform for Balanchine’s austere modernism—leotards and short wrap skirts for the muses and a one-shoulder tunic, knotted at the waist, for Apollo.
For years I have defended the 1979 cuts (a minority opinion), thinking them a logical paring of old-fashioned narrative typical of the Ballets Russes (for whom he had originally made Apollo), in favor of a tighter focus on Apollo evaluating his three muses and selecting Terpsichore, muse of dance. The result, a more abstract presentation, radiated cleaner lines of feeling, and Balanchine had taken so long to arrive at this purified vision, I thought, only because he balked at trimming the score while Stravinsky, his maestro and collaborator, was still alive. Now the ballet had achieved its perfect, purest form, like David standing forth from Michelangelo’s block of marble.
Now I wonder if I’ve been wrong. Many companies here and abroad continue to dance the complete Apollo, and some years ago I discussed here the Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s performance more as a curiosity than as a restored masterpiece. The November performance opened a “ReMix NYC” program by the Vail Dance Festival, directed since 2006 by Damian Woetzel, a marvelous former principal with NYCB who often danced Apollo in its stripped final version. Now, under his aegis, this earlier Apollo bristled with excitement while losing none of its technical sparkle or choreographic audacity, thanks to its cast’s expertise in pushing expressiveness toward narrative drama. Woetzel brought together two of NYCB’s most theatrical principals, the husband-wife team of Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck, to dance Apollo and Terpsichore, his favorite, with Calliope and Polyhymnia [End Page 471] taken by principal Isabella Boylston and soloist Devon Teuscher, both of American Ballet Theatre, the country’s premier exponents of balletic narrative. The resulting intimations of daring lushness in this neoclassical ballet were stunning, yet decorum reigned in the dancers’ technical precision, assisted by the score’s surprisingly full-sounding reduction for eight musicians, the Catalyst and FLUX Quartets, that made Stravinsky’s dissonances sound fresh and personal. As a result, I have begun to think of two Apollos, this rediscovered dance-drama existing side-by-side with the final NYCB version’s cool, sleek perfection.
The ballet’s original prologue enacts Apollo’s birth and childhood in an abstracted vocabulary rather than traditional ballet steps, yet its narrative runs absolutely clear, and the gestural inventions establish motifs that resonate throughout the ballet. Leto, Apollo’s mother, performed by rangy ex-NYCB dancer Kaitlyn Gilliland, sits high atop a platform, gesturing left and right. These profiles recall Art Deco reliefs from the time of Apollo’s creation, Gilliland’s arms reaching aloft and her front knee...