I realized this morning that I had missed this week’s live broadcast through YouTube of Tuesday’s offering in the “Digital Spring Season” presented by the New York City Ballet (NYCB). As a result, I made it a point to view the saved video before it expires tomorrow. The selection was George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” his first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. The video itself was a recording of a performance given on January 22, 2019. This was when Taylor Stanley made his debut in the title role, joined by Tiler Peck as Terpsichore, Brittany Pollack as Polyhymnia, and Indiana Woodward as Calliope. Stravinsky’s score was composed for a string ensemble, which was conducted by Andrew Litton.
It was through “Apollo” that I first began to appreciate the nature of Balanchine’s work in both theory and practice. This came about through a lecture-demonstration with the lecture delivered by B. H. Haggin. The demonstration was followed by a performance of the ballet in its entirety with the leading roles taken by Edward Villella and Patricia McBride. All other dancers were members of the Boston Ballet. With all of that context sustaining me for many years, every performance of “Apollo” was an absorbing one.
As a result, I looked forward to encountering the ballet again after a long absence. Sadly, it does not seem to have fared particularly well following the death of its creators. The original scenario was structured in two scenes, the first dealing with the birth of Apollo and the second with his first encounter with three of the Nine Muses, pride of place being given to the Muse of Dance, Terpsichore. Discovering that the entire first scene had been eliminated in the production captured on video hit me like a bolt from the blue, and I never really recovered after that.
In contrast to the pure abstractions of “Allegro Brillante,” which I discussed last week, “Apollo” has a well-defined narrative structured around those two scenes. In the opening scene we see Leto’s labor pains leading the the birth of Apollo. Like any new-born god, he is a wild child, tamed only when Leto’s handmaidens present him with a lute. Apollo’s mastery of that instrument, represented in the score as a solo violin cadenza, provides the transition to the second scene. The current video version opens with that cadenza depicting Apollo with his lute.
The three Muses then appear, leading to what may best be called “four-part geometry” at its most elegant. This begins a pas de quatre after which each dancer has a solo. In the narrative each Muse presents her talents to Apollo. First is Calliope reciting her poetry. In the version I recall from Villella’s performances, Apollo is not impressed and nods off to sleep before she has finished. Next comes Polyhymnia, the Muse of mime, who gets so enthusiastic that she breaks her silence, shocking Apollo as much as herself. So it is that Terpsichore is the only Muse that draws Apollo’s favor and is selected for one of Balanchine’s most elegant duets (with any number of subtle references to ordinary actions, including what is usually called the “swimming lesson”).
Unfortunately, none of this narrative registered with very much impact on this week’s video; and some of it was entirely disregarded, such as Apollo’s boredom with Calliope recitation. Furthermore, the very notion of a conclusion involving the ascent to Parnassus is given no substantive denotation. In other words what was conceived as a rich (and frequently witty) narrative had been reduced to an abstraction that was not that different than the choreography for “Allegro Brillante.” The steps that Balanchine conceived may have been there, but there was no sign at all of the spirit behind those steps.
I probably should also add the warning that the “replay” version is fraught with advertising. There are a few unpleasant interruptions and a few more pop-up windows. YouTube clearly wants viewers to pay for an upgraded version of their service; but, like all advertising, this was just plain annoying!