Balanchine’s ‘Apollo’: On Gods, Ballet and the Creation of Poetic Art | Modern Society of USA

Balanchine’s ‘Apollo’: On Gods, Ballet and the Creation of Poetic Art

Balanchine’s ‘Apollo’: On Gods, Ballet and the Creation of Poetic Art

Sure enough, Apollo goes onto both knees soon after the three muses — Terpsichore, Calliope and Polyhymnia — have joined him. In that position, he holds his lute vertically aloft, while the muses, around him in a ring, incline toward him, like birds drinking from a pool. The lute, rising like a central fountain, is, Mr. d’Amboise said, quoting Balanchine, “a sacrifice.”

Apollo dances his second solo after each muse has shown him what she knows. Calliope (muse of lyric poetry) and Polyhymnia (mime) have elements of labor in their solos, of trial and error. Terpsichore (dance), however, is more fully the mistress of experimentation: Her solo is characterized by a larger playfulness that satisfies Apollo.

Early on in his solo he kneels again, but now to extend his arms powerfully behind him as he bends his torso and head forward. This is “the eagle,” with wings spread: a crucial image that Balanchine emphasized to each male dancer. The eagle is perched on a crag; he sees all.

In what follows, Apollo remains exploratory. There’s a famous “neon-light” image, where Apollo opens and closes his two hands in alternation. (Balanchine often said he took this from the illuminated signs in Piccadilly Circus, London.) Later on, Apollo kicks the air: as several of Balanchine’s Apollos remember, he’s “playing soccer.”

The eagle, the Piccadilly Circus neon sign, the soccer-playing are images that Balanchine seems to have shared with all his Apollos. Other details he gave to some Apollos but not others. Peter Martins, a long-term Apollo interpreter, has said that he was told, for one series of quick-prancing steps, “You’re dancing on hot coals.”

Though Balanchine looked back on “Apollo” as a milestone ballet from which he learned, in later years he went through many seasons without reviving it. In 1979, when he brought it back to repertory for Mikhail Baryshnikov, he cut its Prologue and changed its ending in ways about which people still argue fiercely. Nonetheless, once he was working on it, he did so with passionate detail: “The only ballet on which he was super-specific,” Mr. Andersen said.

Several of the Balanchine alumni at the “Apollo” seminar agreed the role of Apollo was where Balanchine the creative artist came closest to a self-portrait. Yet it also shows us sides of Balanchine few ever saw: The young god Apollo is effortful in his search for inspiration as the mature, phenomenally assured Balanchine never seemed. But the young god reveals himself in eagle imagery above all; and with “Apollo” Balanchine found his own commanding, eagle-eyed view of his art.

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