For Balanchine, Apollo was a “turning point”

In her book Balanchine Variations, former dance critic Nancy Goldner gives insight into the legacy and staying power of Apollo, which FBP will perform in Up Close on Hope, Program 1.

Balanchine made Apollo in 1928, under the inspiration of Stravinsky’s score and under the auspices of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He was all of twenty-four years old. As his oldest surviving ballet, and by general consensus one of his great ballets, Apollo has a biographical fascination. It offers a rare glimpse of his achievements as a young man…The official chronology of his work, which was compiled with his participation, cited 1920 as the beginning of Balanchine’s choreographies. He was prolific from the get-go: Apollo was his eighty-fourth ballet, although many of these works were small, occasional pieces or divertissements for operas.

[Balanchine] never called Apollo a great ballet or his first great ballet, but he did famously call it a “turning point” in his life. He wrote this in 1947 in an essay for the magazine Dance Index, in which he paid homage to Stravinsky as a composer for dance. He wrote, “In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained one-ness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could dare not use everything, and I, too, could eliminate.” He added, “It was in studying Apollo that I came first to understand how gestures, like tones in music and shades in painting, have certain family relations…Since this work, I have developed my choreography inside the framework such relations suggest.”

Balanchine’s comments about Apollo all point to the business of artistic mastery, of shaping and controlling one’s material. It so happens that this is also the theme of the ballet. Apollo traces the god’s life from birth to his ascension of Mount Parnassus. Throughout the ballet Apollo is testing the limits and capabilities of his body. Once he learns to walk (in the first scene), he wants to figure out how forcefully he can swing his arms and legs, how much flexibility is in his back—see how his torso contracts and arches in his first solos—how far he can lean backward without falling down. He experiments even with his hands—clenching them into fists, then opening them. (Balanchine got these open-and-close, on-and-off sequences from the neon lights he saw flashing in Piccadilly Circus—or so the story goes.) He wants to know what makes the lute tick from top to bottom. He cradles it seemingly in endless positions. He looks at it from afar, close up. With a rambunctious windup, he strikes the lute’s strings as though it were a banjo. Later on he makes a sound so soft, he must place his ear against the strings to hear it.

When Apollo dances with the three Muses he sports with them as though they were parts of a mobile, first partitioning the trio into groups of two and one, then shaping all three into picturesque poses. He partners them two at a time, one by one, in the air, into the ground.

Later on, he appraises them form a critic’s point of view: each of the muses dances a variation for him, a sort of audition in which they display their artistic wares. The first two, Calliope (goddess of poetry) and Polyhymnia (goddess of mime), goof up, and Apollo dismisses them—rather rudely, I would say. Terpsichore pleases the god and gets to dance a duet with him. Polyhymia’s mistake is obvious. She must be silent, and so dances her jaunty variation with a finger pressed to her lips. At the very end, though, she flings her arms toward the audience and opens her mouth—wide! She covers her mouth in shame and runs off like a naughty schoolgirl. Calliope’s problem is harder to read. My understanding is that she keeps running out of ideas. She starts with big ones; that is, she clutches her bosom as though digging deep inside herself, and then declaims with stentorian arm movements. These grand (grandiose?) beginnings end with whimpers, her body sagging. So Apollo sends her packing too.

Because Apollo is not a literal narrative, it’s not wise to look for specific reasons why Terpsichore’s solo is the “best.” But it’s worth noting that hers is the most three-dimensional of the lot. If there is one salient characteristic of her solo, it’s that she keeps revolving around herself, showing her body to the audience from all possible angles. She offers full disclosure…Naturally, Apollo brings Terpsichore back for a pas de deux, after he does a variation of his own. What I particularly love about his solo is its encoded homage to ballet technique. Accompanied by grand chords from Stravinsky, Apollo thrusts his arms skyward, as if holding up the world in the raised palms of his hands. But its not his arms that give him Herculean strength; its his legs locked tightly in fifth position. Fifth position, of course, is the cornerstone of ballet; it’s the beginning and the end.

The pas de deux for Apollo and Terpsichore also refers to the source of life, by way of Michelangelo’s fresco. But the grandeur of the encounter quickly gives way to less godly moods—playfulness, tenderness, friendly competition. These moods come and go with the breezes of a spring day, and they characterize the rest of Apollo.

At its premiere the ballet ran into trouble with the critics. The authenticity of the ballet’s classicism was naturally a main bone of contention. Music critics thought the music a rehash of old material. Dance people were horrified by Balanchine’s so-called distortion of classical principles. It’s easy to find the sinning elements in the choreography—the occasional turned in leg, the flat-footed shuffles, the novel ways of partnering, the inclusion of acrobatics. (My god! Was that Terpsichore doing the splits?) None of this stuff was new, but now it was applied to noble subject matter.

By all accounts making Apollo was a happy experience for Balanchine and Stravinsky, and, more importantly, the memory of it stuck. The two continued to work on ballets together, culminating with Agon in 1957, and the professional relationship flowered into a friendship that lasted until Stravinsky’s death in 1971.

Nancy Goldner’s book Balanchine Variations, chronicles the life and career of George Balanchine through the lens of several prolific works of his choreography that changed the face of ballet as we know it today.

Vilia Putrius and Mindaugas Bauzys in Apollo. Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Vilia Putrius and Mindaugas Bauzys in Apollo. Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

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