By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK – Opening night of New York City Ballet’s fall season on Sept. 18 launched the company’s two-week homage to the groundbreaking collaboration between Stravinsky and legendary choreographer George Balanchine.
The season runs through Sept. 30, with twelve Balanchine ballets to Stravinsky’s music on view at the former New York State Theater. The first program (Sept. 18-23), called Greek Trilogy, featured Apollo (1928), Orpheus (1948) and Agon (1957).
Robbie Fairchild’s performance of the title role Apollo was something to talk about. Sitting next to me in the theater was Jacques D’Amboise, who danced Apollo for twenty years and imbued it with its necessary complexity. In under thirty minutes and without words, the dancer performing Apollo must convince the audience that he has transformed from a newly born god (who is awkward and knows little) to Zeus’s delegate representing the sun, music, and math.
Fairchild accomplished this feat. He did so with his expressive face and full-bodied gestures. At first, he watched his three muses like a young man in love. At the ballet’s end, he took the movement motifs they first performed alone to choreograph a pas de trois. Fairchild gently directed their arms into serpentine tableaus and their legs into rays of streaming light. The result: a ballet fit for the gods as enacted by a sensitive artist.
What kept the performance of Apollo from being dazzling were Fairchild’s muses. Sterling Hyltin (Terpsichore, aka dance), Tiler Peck (Polyhmnia, aka drama) and Anna-Sophia Scheller (Calliope, aka poetry) are astonishing movers, but they look more like girls than god-like sources of inspiration. Hyltin, whose ease with the classical technique is remarkable, has become fearfully thin. Balanchine believed that dancers could never be too skinny, and this generation of City Ballet dancers seems to be following his mantra.
The first time that Balanchine tried his hand at a Greek theme was in 1928 with Apollon musagetes (now called Apollo): Serge Diaghilev tasked him to create the work for his Ballets Russes. Stravinsky’s neo-classical music forged the 24-year-old dance maker’s aesthetic. Consequently, Balanchine became equally devoted to the classicizing principles of geometry, restraint and harmony – found in Greek art and the academic ballet tradition – as to modernist experimentation. With Apollo as his bedrock ballet, Balanchine set his dances to Stravinsky’s music until a year before his death in 1982.
Balanchine, however, did not just become a classicist and a modernist. He also became a man of the theater, who worked for two decades on Broadway and in Hollywood. His interest in the highly theatrical is seen in Orpheus, the second work on the program. It is a work less known and less performed than Balanchine’s modernist-classicist Apollo and Agon, which, respectively, appeared first and last on the program.
Balanchine’s Orpheus reads like a dance play rather than a piece of choreography. In the first section of the 30-minute work (under the baton of new arrival Andrew Sills), Orpheus (Ask la Cour) is greeted by the Dark Angel (Amar Ramasar) and taken to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice (Wendy Whelan). Orpheus is temporarily blinded by a gold eye mask that looks like a prop from a 1960s sci-fi space travel movie.
Little classical dancing is on display. What captures the eyes are the dancers’ wild costumes by Isamu Noguchi. Orpheus wears an orange unitard with a blood-colored umbilical chord that winds around his chest and left leg. He holds on to Noguchi’s lyre, which is shaped like a bull’s head with long horns. The Dark Angel wears a rapper’s do-rag, with a hanging snake-like projection from his forehead. The Nature Spirits sport white disc-like shells around their breasts and belly buttons. No ballets buns here. Long hair is de rigueur, happily foreshadowing the style of the 1960s.
Isamu Noguchi became known to the theater set as early as 1935, when he made the first of many collaborations with Martha Graham, the doyenne of modern dance. At the time of Balanchine’s Orpheus, Graham was famous for her Greek tragedies in which she performed the tormented heroine. No doubt Balanchine saw Noguchi’s set and costume designs for Graham’s 1947 Night Journey, based on the Oedipus story; Balanchine’s 1948 Orpheus bears too many similarities to Graham’s work. But imitation can come at a price. Balanchine’s Orpheus feels like a mash up of references in which the bible and showgirl culture compete with the tale about a poet-musician and his wife.
In Agon, expertly conducted by Daniel Capps, music is the message. Balanchine and Stravinsky modeled their work after a mid-17th century dance manual. Though Balanchine employs off-kilter balances and multiple turns, he maintains the structural integrity of the baroque dance forms: performers dance by side; they trace geometrical and symmetrical patterns on the floor.
All twelve performers on Sept. 18 danced Agon superbly. A particular standout was Andrew Veyette, whose ferocity displayed itself in his jumps. At their height, Veyette jettisoned his foot into the eyes of the audience. By doing so, he got to the essence Agon, which means competition in Greek. Veyette appeared to be competing with himself. How far can I go, his dancing seems to ask. Another standout of the evening was Rebecca Krohn, who confidently performed quick-directional changes and precarious balances with crystalline precision.