“Apollo,” “Orpheus,” “Agon”
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
September 18, 2012
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2012 © by Michael Popkin
When the first chords of “Apollo” opened New York City Ballet’s fall season, the audience was even more attentive than usual. Many had lived half their lives to this ballet and returned to it with an attention conditioned by memory. The evening’s performance did justice to this reverie and laid a beautiful new recollection on top of the others. “Orpheus” and “Agon” fell away from this level but were still danced well enough for the program’s theme to register.
Stylistic complexity lurks below the surface of the program’s deceptively simple title of Greek Trilogy. In the context of a New York City Ballet fall season called “Stravinsky/Balanchine The Collaboration,” the dramatic world of “Orpheus” (1948) is ages and continents apart from “Apollo” (1928), while “Agon” (1957) has nothing Greek about it but its name. It could as easily have been a part of the following week’s Black and White program.
The young cast of “Apollo” – one of two that danced the ballet last week –had Robert Fairchild in the title role, with Sterling Hyltin as Terpsichore, Tiler Peck as Polyhymnia and Ana Sophia Scheller as Calliope. They’ve been cast together since last winter and present it with freshness as a spontaneous drama. All these young dancers like to act and, even when dancing a ballet that can be considered stylized, dramatize instinctively.
This characterizes their entire generation at NYCB; Balanchine may have instructed his dancers to “just do the steps,” but times have changed and even when trying to remain neutral, today’s youngsters do more. In “Apollo” you sensed this more in how Apollo and the muses related to each other than during his solos. Apollo has always been an intensely dramatic character; but the muses’ personalities and relation to his leading figure were even more vivid Tuesday night than are normally the case.
Fairchild danced with great elevation and strength, and had one of his strongest performances since his triumph as the leading man in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna” several years ago. Starting out innocent and full of wonder, his character developed force steadily as the ballet proceeded, matching the growth of Apollo’s personality with the development of his physical strength and scale. Going deep into his pliés, he pressurized the tense and compact elements of the choreography, but kept clearly balanced lines even when deep in muscular poses. Peck and Scheller had dance power and especially stage presence to match this; while Hyltin’s Terpsichore combined these qualities with a delicate femininity that singled her out. “Apollo” once again impressed with the unique degree that its dramatic imagery, music and choreography combine. You could no longer imagine this music apart from the image of this dance.
In “Orpheus” the union of music and dance is much more uneasy and tangential. Here the aesthetic is not Diaghilev’s white, updated classical ideal, but instead Balanchine’s take on primitivism. The designs commissioned from the avant-garde symbolist sculptor Isamu Noguchi (who also worked extensively with Martha Graham), often seem to clash Stravinsky neo-classical score, while Balanchine’s choreographic palate relates to expressionist works such as “Prodigal Son.” Aware of the contrast, Balanchine’s direct choreographic quotations in Orpheus’s opening solo (nearly parodying the dance at the beginning of “Apollo” where the god strums his lute with huge gestures of the arm) emphasize that Orpheus is a man, not a god. In the Noguchi World of this drama, he’s primitive the way Graham’s Jason is in “Medea,” or Ariadne in her “Errand in the Maze.” Yet none of this ballet’s stylistic elements ever fully merges with the others.
Danced by the company on Tuesday for the first time since 2007, Ask la Cour and Wendy Whelan were Orpheus and Eurydice, with Amar Ramasar in the critical supporting role of the Dark Angel. Their dramatic interpretation was unsubtle, particularly the relationship between the Dark Angel and Orpheus. This ought to suggest that the angel may be Orpheus’s animus, or a mysterious personal artistic spirit, as a romantic like Shelley would have conceived it. Instead, la Cour made Orpheus a plebeian clod, and Ramasar turned the angel into a melodramatic villain who manipulated the hero for evil purposes and perhaps even intended Eurydice’s doom. But Whelan danced divinely as Eurydice. The Noguchi costume suited her beautifully as she swept majestically through large scaled arabesques but accomplished them without wasting the motion of a single muscle. In the final scene, where Apollo enters with the mask of tragedy, Russell Janzen also showed a beautifully lyrical delicacy, first parading the mask, then going to his knee and strumming a lyrical air.
Closing the evening, “Agon” began with spirit and finesse. Andrew Veyette’s Sarabande used the entire stage and rendered every position in the deepest shape. You couldn’t get more physicality out of the choreography. When Ashley Laracey and Megan LeCrone joined him, they also danced their trios, and duet entrance, with an impressive blend of strength and refinement. Little 1930’s Charleston shimmies were done with jazzy sophistication, but followed by beats and glissades that showed the purest classical technique. Rebecca Krohn, who has grown immensely in strength and was recently promoted to principal dancer, also made an impressive debut in the second pas de trois. But the pas de deux between Maria Kowroski and Sébastien Marcovici fell apart when the classical structure underneath the neo-classical vocabulary vanished, and the action appeared alternately tentative and physically violent. The overall structure of the duet was also thrown off as the couple seemed to continually readjust poses and introduce extra transition steps.
But “Agon” nonetheless made its point in relation to the other works – which on this evening appeared to be the complex inventiveness of George Balanchine’s responses to Stravinsky music. The scores on the program had an impressive range; those for “Apollo” and “Agon” are deservedly regarded as masterpieces. Yet their range appeared homogenous in comparison to Balanchine’s dances and many-sided theatrical vision.
Photographs by Paul Kolnik: Top – Robert Fairchild and Sterling Hyltin, with Tiler Peck and Ana Sophia Scheller in “Apollo”; Bottom – Ask la Cour and Wendy Whelan in “Orpheus”