Profile of a Great Ballet: Apollo

Posted by on 01.19.2013

I am ashamed to admit it, but until the beginning of this season, I had never seen George Balanchine’s Apollo. OK, well maybe I had seen it, but I had never really seen it.  Life changed for me on that Thursday evening sitting in the house of Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.  I know that sounds dramatic, but it gave me a whole new respect for Balanchine’s choreography (and if you are a regular reader, you know I am already a big fan.)

The morning after my first real viewing of Apollo, I sat with my coffee and my Balanchine books to study up on the ballet’s story and history before seeing it again that evening.  I wanted to get the most out of my experience and obtain more insight into Balanchine’s intention behind the steps and the structure.

Miami City Ballet in ‘Apollo.’

Apollo was created by George Balanchine in 1928 at the mere age of twenty-four for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  It was his eighty-fourth ballet, but is his oldest surviving work.  Many believe that Apollo was his first great work, a postulation that Balanchine never admitted to, though he was famously quoted as saying Apollo was a “turning point” in his life.  In a 1947 essay for Dance Index he said, “It was studying Apollo that I came first to understand how gestures, like tones in music and shades in painting, has certain family relations… Since this work, I have developed my choreography inside the framework such relations suggest.”

Balanchine is of course well-known for his unmitigated understanding of music. As a musician himself, he understood the substantial role music plays in dance and recreated it.  One of his most famous quotes is, “Hear the dancing, see the music.”  This quote brings me to the Miami City Ballet “Open Barre” performance series earlier this season.  When our studios are transformed into a fully-functional theater, we are able to provide the public with unique shows meant to introduce them to a different side of the world of ballet.  For this particular performance, Artistic Director, Lourdes Lopez, teamed up with our Principal Conductor, Gary Sheldon, to treat the audience to a chat about the neoclassical art created by the combined efforts of Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, in a performance entitled “Hear the dancing, See the music.”

Front and center in this discussion was Apollo, which was Stravinsky and Balanchine’s second collaboration, preceded only by Song of the Nightingale.  Mr. Sheldon demonstrated to the audience what neo-classisism meant from the musical point of view, as Ms. Lopez illustrated this from the dancer’s point of view.

Ms. Lopez said that to her, she always thought of neo-classism meaning a lack of a plot in a ballet.  But she said she realized later in her career that, “there is always a plot, but the dancer has to find it in the music.”  The movements in Apollo seem revolutionary and fresh even by today’s standards: imagine how it was received nearly a century ago.  Ms. Lopez had the dancers demonstrate some of the steps that are defined as neoclassical because Balanchine built upon a classical ballet vocabulary to create something different and daring.  She pointed out the use of splits in the pas de deux between Apollo and Terpsichore, relaying to the audience that until that time a movement like that was only performed by can-can dancers.

Ms. Lopez relayed a story that I had found a few times in my readings on Apollo: after the ballet’s premier, a critic asked of Balanchine, “Where have you ever seen Apollo on his knees?” (referring to the Greek god of course) and Balanchine replied, “Tell me Mr. So and so, where did you ever see Apollo?”  This gives us great insight into how he believed that ballet has no bounds.

Miami City Ballet in ‘Apollo.’

Another significant innovation appears at the end of the ballet: the final pose.  Some have said, that with this pose Balanchine created a logo for the ballet. Be that as it may, it is one of the most iconic spectacles in a ballet history.  As Ms. Lopez points out, this was the first time a female dancer had been placed behind the male in a moment of this kind.

This performance also included a short preview of a video conceived and written by Stephanie Jordan featuring rare video footage of Balanchine and Stravinsky, “Music Dances: Balanchine Choreographs Stravinsky.”    Included was a segment of the two men discussing music at a dinner party.  It was particularly fascinating to watch the two interact, as it was very clear that they understood each other in a very unique way.  It left me wondering what it must have been like to watch these two brilliant minds work in the studio and to be a part of their collaborations.

Sitting in the audience and watching Apollo, an astonishing 84 years after it’s conception, I found myself completely entranced by the way Balanchine portrayed a greek god with his maidens in a way that still felt fresh and revolutionary.  This self-proclaimed “turning point” in his life certainly changed the face of ballet forever.  I am truly in awe of this great ballet.

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. It’s great to watch young dancers connecting to the greatest milestones of their art. If you could cast yourself as any of the Muses, which would you choose? (I’m thinking that it might be either Terpsichore and Calliope.)

    • Terpsichore for sure. Though I am not sure if it would be right for me, but it would be so much fun!

  2. Interesting! Thanks!

  3. It’s funny you bring up the “logo” pose, which everyone loves, because I don’t think it was in the 1928 “Apollo” — it was added later, at the same time that Balanchine cut the introductory “Birth of Apollo” section. In the original finale, the three muses followed Apollo up a staircase (symbolizing Mount Parnassus). Apollo stops at the top, and the three muses, on different steps, look up at him.

    You can see the 1928 version here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lkv-tlgOFY4

    ABT still dances it this way.

    • MCB used to do the birth scene with the original ending as well. Once Lourdes Lopez came, she wanted us to do the more current version that NYCB does. Thanks so much for sharing the video and for leaving a comment!

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