The College had the pleasure of hosting members of the New York City Ballet Company this past Monday. The program, supported by both the Williams College Dance Program and The Bari Lipp Foundation, was staged in the Lasell Dance Studio.
The principal dancers performed excerpts from both The Firebird and Apollo. The program was moderated by Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian, and Meredith Hoppin, professor of classics. Joan Quantrano, director of volunteers from the New York City Ballet, was especially engaging in her moderation of the panel discussions and her focus on the history of the Company itself, as well as its many productions.
The New York City Ballet was founded by George Balanchine (1904-1983), one of the most prolific and prodigious choreographers in ballet history. He choreographed close to 300 ballets over his lifetime. A native Georgian, he started training at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg. With the help of the famous impresario Serge Diaghilev, Balanchine began choreographing for the Ballet Russes and in the process, (taking the suggestion from Diaghilev) changed his name from Balanchivadze to Balanchine.
It was around this same period, in 1928, that he created Apollo, which has remained Balanchine’s signature piece to this day. With the help of various wealthy benefactors, Balanchine was able to travel to such cities as Copenhagen, Paris and London, and eventually started his own ballet school, The School of American Ballet (SAB) of Madison Avenue in New York City. It was from here that Balanchine would launch his artistic vision.
In 1935, the American Ballet became the ballet company of the Metropolitan Opera Company, and then moved on in 1948 to become a permanent unit of the New York City Center, with the new name of the New York City Ballet.
Balanchine saw ballet as a kind of synthetic art that could be presented on the stage. In The Firebird and Apollo, Balanchine created a dazzling and different aesthetic. His interpretation of dance relied heavily on a balance created via a kind of triumvirate, wherein the elements of dance could be embellished by music and painting. In 1949 the paintings by Chagall inspired Balanchine’s conception of The Firebird on the stage. Coupled with the music of Igor Stravinsky, Balanchine brought the Russian fairytale to life.
The Russian firebird, part of traditional Russian folklore, was a symbol of vitality for the Russians. Darting like a flickering flame through the forest, she is pursued by Prince Ivan, who initially pulls one of her feathers and captures her. After many days of begging for the release of her spirit, the prince finally sets her free. In return, the firebird gives the prince one of her feathers, and he is granted magical powers and the firebird’s protection in his quest to rescue beautiful maidens from the magician Katschei and his evil forces.
With her long, shimmery tail, the firebird is said to illuminate everything around her, becoming a representation of hope and life. It is an important fairytale that has endured the many trials and hardships of the Russian people. Balanchine’s genius lies in his ability to artistically conceptualize this, to recreate the legend in all of its magic, enchantment and sorcery and to breathe life into its presentation on the stage.
The company’s second piece, Apollo is often considered to be Balanchine’s most triumphant. Balanchine himself wrote, “I look back on Apollo as the turning point in my life. In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling…it seemed to tell me that I could dare not use everything; that I too could eliminate.”
The Ballet Russes premiered the work in 1928, but ever since 1957, productions of Apollo have been performed without elaborate sets or costumes. The dancers now perform the oeuvre in basic uniforms, which allow for an elegant portrayal in sleek white silhouettes.
Stravinsky also composed the music for Apollo, specifically employing a specific vision of Apollo as a deity, an exalted muse, the god of music, poetry, the sun and prophecy. Reading from an excerpt from the Iliad, in “The Hymn to Apollo,” we learn much about Apollo’s inherent beauty and his disposition. Apollo’s half-sisters are also injected in the ballet. Each of these three muses seek Apollo’s approval: Calliope through her engagement of language and poetry, Polyhymnia through her powers of mime, and Terpsichore through dance. It is Terpsichore whom he chooses in the end.
Commenting on Stravinsky’s score for Apollo, Balanchine stated, “it is elegant, and inspired by the sheer beauty of classical forms.” It becomes apparent after watching the two productions that Stravinsky’s score for Apollo lacks the folkish interpretations that are so important to his production and the vision of The Firebird.
Balanchine creates what is in comparison an artistically minimalist interpretation of this myth in Greek classicism in order to compliment Stravinsky’s classically interpretive score. This becomes very apparent in performances in later years as Balanchine strips Apollo of much of its narrative content.
The excerpts from The Firebird incorporated various slides of the works of Chagall, enabling the audience to better sense the dreamlike fairytale and all the magic and wonder that surrounds the legend.
Margaret Tracey, principle dancer, was technically very good, but lacked the enthusiasm necessary for her role. As a result, watching that piece was similar to watching a basic rehearsal. In the pas des deux, we were not given a sense of the bird as a majestic and divine creature, whose spirit and beauty is essentially being held captive.
Apollo, on the other hand, was beautifully executed. The principal, Nikolaj HÃ¼bbe, as the god Apollo, thrilled the audience with his sweeping of the stage, broad sashays and grand gestures to the muses. He captivated both them and us, with the thorough ownership and possession of his character.
Through Apollo, we truly glimpsed the vision Balanchine’s vision. Few things are more spectacular than Balanchine’s portrayal of this Greek deity, and his actions as a force for that might have propelled all the arts. That is what we were really seeing on the Lasell stage that night ? not just a ballet, but extreme visions of beauty created by a brilliant mind that permeated all the arts.