Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Debut: Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, 1928
As my brother once put it, “if Agon is the apex of Balanchine’s choreography, Apollo is the inception” and, indeed, it seems odd to be reviewing Apollo after Agon if only because it is the seed of what later developed more extremely. That is not to say, however, that Apollo is simply a means toward an end. It remains one of the best and most important, enduring ballets.
First presented as Apollon Musagete during Balanchine’s early days with the original Ballet Russes, Apollo (shortened from the longer title in the 1950s) is the first of Balanchine’s great, lasting choreographic successes. Its creation was the first of many collaborations between the choreographer and his lifelong mentor Igor Stravinsky.
The “story” of the ballet is minimal. It depicts Apollo’s birth (an opening scene at times present and at others cut from the performance), his interplay with the three muses (Calliope, muse of poetry, Polyhymnia, muse of mime and Terpsichore, muse of dance) and his ascendant return to Mount Olympus (also cut from some interpretations).
Despite the plot’s simplicity, Balanchine writes in his summary for Apollo in “101” a detailed play-by-play of the intricate choreographic detail of the entire 30-minute ballet. It’s clear that this work was near and dear to him, and it’s understandable why that is so. Apollo represents the choreographer’s own first moment of self-discovery. In fact, the story – the young god first realizing his own strength of talent as an artist – is an allegory for Balanchine, just 24 years old in 1928, discovering his power as a creator and developing his unique vocabulary as an artist.
Apollo is one of those ballets that I have seen many times, particularly during my summer in Saratoga; NYCB performed the piece several times in the two weeks throughout which I attended performances. I was bored by the repetition at the time but today am envious of that opportunity. I have just watched the ballet, an NYCB performance from 1989, on videotape, which is lovely but not quite the same as the live experience.
As Balanchine’s ballets are so often described, Apollo is pristine. Balanchine’s inventive, neoclassical steps evoke an entirely classical setting but small, intimate gestures are recognizable to the modern viewer: playful, lilting jumps on pointe, the swimming lesson that Apollo gives to Terpsichore, the chariot race…simulations that convey an idea without resorting to simple mime. In just a single scene, we watch Apollo awkwardly take up his calling as god of music, obtain mastery and self-possession as a mentor to the three muses and humbly assume his godly stature. The humanity of the god, and of his three muses, is what shines through for me. It’s an interesting interpretation of an immortal being and reflects, I think, Balanchine’s own ascent to artists power.