Balanchine once said: “Probably dance would stop if we didn’t have Stravinsky.” The composer gave him solid foundations on which to build dances, an education in composition, and confidence. In 1972, a year after Stravinsky’s death, the New York City Ballet organised a now-legendary festival of a whopping 31 ballets to his scores, including 21 premieres. For the next two weeks, the company presents the cream of that crop: 13 Balanchine works, beginning with Apollo, Orpheus and Agon, the only three whose music Stravinsky made to order. Of this “Greek trilogy”, only Apollo and Orpheus were conceived as a pair, yoked musically and philosophically and also perfect opposites.
The music for the 1928 Apollo is all grand, sunny certitude. Stravinsky’s tell-tale pulse may rollick as the young Olympian struggles to rein in his muses, but the music is too sweet to suggest trouble ahead. As for the choreography, the three muses’ spiky legs evoke the sun’s rays and their circling arms its body. Even as the steps shift between constructivist flatness and sculptural roundness, Apollo’s eventual stature as the pillar of well-proportioned art is assured.
Still, he has some growing to do – where would the drama be otherwise? On opening night, Robert Fairchild presented the god evolving beat by beat. He favoured muscular impetus over static line, a brave and unusual choice that gave the performance the edge it lacked last year at his debut in the role.
Orpheus is as saturnine as Apollo is bright, but it has echoes of the earlier work. To the impish melody that accompanied Apollo as he emerged from his swaddling clothes, his son Orpheus desperately tries to conjure his dead bride. To the churning pulse of Apollo driving his chariot, the poet blindly leads Eurydice from the underworld. But unlike Apollo, the thrum of harp (read: lyre) enshrouds the musical landscape in a fog of grief.
Why, though, is the dancing nebulous? The choreography is less intricate and compressed than most Balanchine in order to suggest massive feeling, not to invite the dancers to sketch their steps. When Orpheus premiered, it won the choreographer a regular season at City Center. Sixty-four years later, scant sign remained of that compelling ballet.
Until Sunday, www.nycballet.com