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Juilliard Dance

Published: February 11, 2019
Category: review

City Ballet Honors Its Famed Collaborators

By Rachel Straus, Musical America
February 11, 2019

The components of the Balanchine-Stravinsky Greek-themed trilogy Apollo (1928), Orpheus
(1948) and Agon (1957) are infrequently seen together, perhaps because the middle ballet is not an outright crowd pleaser. But the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. Seen side by side, these works provide two distinctive pleasures: experiencing how they interconnect, both musically and choreographically, and how the present generation of dancers interpret leading roles created more than a half-century ago.

On January 24, at Lincoln Center’s venue formerly known as the New York State Theater, New York City Ballet principal dancer Taylor Stanley performed the title role of Apollo, the Greek god of music, the sun, and the truth. (He is only the second African-American to interpret Balanchine’s oldest NYCB repertory work.) Stanley’s fascinating interpretation stressed the god’s dichotomies, alternating between the remote, cult figure and an individual who plaintively strives.

He manifests as the former via several motifs: When he and his muses (Tiler Peck, Brittany Pollack, and Indiana Woodward) skirr straight-legged on the heels of their feet, they resemble marble statues only partially made lifelike. Apollo becomes the archaic figure. Likewise in the ballet’s classic final pose, he is the embodiment of the sun, giving forth burning rays, as produced by the muses’ extended legs emerging from the curvature of his spine. These quasi-abstract moments of Apollo’s immortality are balanced by Stanley’s deeply humanistic interpretation. He expresses a sense of striving, even desperation, using seeking gestures and brief spurts of all-out movement. Cuttingly sharp changes of speed contrast with a luxurious giving in to gravity. His Apollo does not dwell on the god’s implacability. While seated on a stool and watching his three muses’ solo dancing, he is not cold and aloof, sitting erect as to convey judgment and superiority, as some Apollos do. Rather, he leans forward like an attentive student, eager to learn.

Tiler Peck, Indiana Woodward, Brittany Pollack and Taylor Stanley in George Balanchine’s Apollo. © Erin Baiano.

Seeing these three ballets together emphasizes their choreographic interconnectivity. Each dance employs a movement motif frequently referred to as a “daisy chain”—three or more dancers winding in and out of each other’s personal space while holding hands. Stemming from folk dance, it is Balanchine’s metaphor for human interaction. In Apollo, the daisy chain first suggests harmony, as the muses and Apollo seamlessly wind and unwind themselves, and then walk in unison behind him to his place on Mount Olympus. In Orpheus, the daisy chains express complication and later danger. Here danced with a sense of the tragic by principal dancer Gonzalo Garcia, Orpheus is led to the underworld where the daisy chain of dancers overstretches his body to discomfort. It’s a foreshadowing of his demise at the ballet’s end, when the furies rip him apart, limb by limb. Balanchine’s daisy chain is also at the ballet’s emotional center, when the blindfolded Orpheus leads his wife Euridice (danced by Sterling Hyltin) out of Hades. The couple makes their journey holding hands, interlacing their bodies. Hyltin shapes her leg around Garcia’s pelvis. These connections should read as erotic, but, perhaps for lack of rehearsal, they did not. Hyltin looked tentative.

Danced by Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, the central pas de deux of Agon, the last of the trilogy, is a gymnastic amplification of the Orpheus-Euridice duet. It is a negotiation between powerful beings speaking in extreme gestures: she lassoes her leg around his neck, as though putting him in a vice; he lies on his back while she balances on one leg, sending her other into in a 180-degree split. Her only support is his one upheld hand, and in this splayed position, she must prove her mettle.

Stravinsky’s music for this duet, played under the baton of Andrew Litton, exudes tension. Through numerous unexpected pauses, the violin solist (not named) produces a feeling akin to anxiety, as though he/she is searching unsuccessfully for a bygone melody. This melody might very well be the bell-like, ascending one heard in the final moments of Apollo, whereby the dancers become a vision of unity (the sun), or the Orpheus duet’s melody–ominous, dark, dense–which abruptly ends (to represent Euridice’s death). In the Agon central pas de deux, Stravinsky banishes melody. In turn, Balanchine provides the viewer with a bare-boned vision of heterosexual intimacy. It is not defined by unity (Apollo) or loss (Orpheus). Rather, Kowroski and Angle fascinate because their tensile movement never explodes. Rather, it smolders artfully beneath the surface.

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