American Ballet Theatre, which is appearing at New York’s City Center through November 6, is dancing Apollo, George Balanchine’s first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky and his oldest surviving ballet (Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered it in 1928). What’s more, they’re doing it with the rarely performed birth scene, which I’ve only seen twice on stage in my eighteen years of dancegoing.
Not surprisingly, I have a lot to say about Apollo in All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, including this explanation of how and why Balanchine cut the birth scene:
Apollo is a portrait of the Greek god of song and music, danced by a cast of seven and accompanied by a small string orchestra. As the curtain rises, Leto gives birth to the young Apollo, who is freed from his swaddling clothes by two handmaidens. He takes up his lyre and plays, then dances about the stage, exploring his godly powers. He is joined by Calliope, the muse of poetry; Polyhymnia, the muse of mime; and Terpsichore, the muse of dance. Each muse dances a solo variation for Apollo, “instructing” him in her art. He dances with Terpsichore alone, then with all three muses. Having achieved his maturity, he then ascends Mount Parnassus to join Zeus, his father, in Olympus, followed by the muses, as Leto and her handmaidens bid him farewell from the earth below.
In 1979 Balanchine eliminated the roles of Leto and the handmaidens, cut the birth scene, and rechoreographed the finale so that Apollo and the muses pose in a sunlit peacock-like formation at center stage instead of ascending to Olympus. He apparently felt that the opening scenes had become dated and were out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the dance. (“I know why I changed it, I took out all the garbage–that’s why!” he told an interviewer in 1981.) New York City Ballet now performs Apollo only in this shortened version, originally created for Mikhail Baryshnikov, but many other companies continue to dance the birth scene.
I think Balanchine was dead wrong, and the performance I saw on Sunday afternoon, in which Ethan Stiefel danced the title role, showed why.
This is what I wrote about Stiefel several years ago for a Time profile that never made it into print:
In recent seasons, Stiefel has appeared in a startlingly wide range of ballets–Le Corsaire, Billy the Kid, Balanchine’s Apollo, even contemporary works by Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp–moving from role to role with a casual virtuosity and unmannered grace that are as all-American as Fred Astaire. No less typically American is his eagerness to take chances: “I’m not saying that I can do everything, but I’ll definitely try everything. I don’t want people to say I’m a great classical ballet dancer, or a modern dancer, or any one kind of dancer. I’m a dancer, period.” Well, not quite. In fact, he is the greatest American-born male ballet dancer to come along since Edward Villella, and quite possibly the most exciting, of either sex and from any country, since Baryshnikov. Period.
I stand by those words, and Sunday’s performance gave me fresh reasons to do so. Unlike any other Apollo I’ve been lucky enough to see on stage, Stiefel understands that the young Apollo is young and unformed, and that it is the muses who must teach him the meaning of beauty. Accordingly, his dancing throughout the first part of the ballet is raw and wild–just what you’d expect from a newborn god, in other words–and it is the prefatory birth scene that puts the wildness in context. On Sunday I found it nothing short of revelatory.
You have four more chances to see Apollo in New York, on October 27, November 2, and at both performances on November 5. Stiefel will only be dancing Apollo once more, on November 2, but all four performances have been staged by Richard Tanner, and so I expect they’ll be worth seeing no matter who’s in them. Go–especially if you’ve been disappointed in recent seasons by New York City Ballet’s slick, flattened-out performances of the ballet Balanchine called “the turning point of my life.”
(Incidentally, Andante has put out a three-disc box set of performances by Stravinsky which includes, among other things, the very first CD release of the little-known recording of Apollo Stravinsky made in 1950 with a pickup ensemble of top New York string players billed as the RCA Victor Orchestra. It’s a little scrappy in spots but for the most part incredibly vivid and revealing, and I commend it to your attention as well.)