New York City Ballet opened its winter season on Tuesday with the birth of a god. Or, rather, since the company uses the version of George Balanchine’s “Apollo” that skips the birth scene, the season began with the young god figuring out what he can do. At least, that’s what the dance is about. Taylor Stanley, making his debut as Apollo, seemed fully formed from the start.
That’s not a criticism of Mr. Stanley’s acting. The 1928 work, the oldest Balanchine piece in City Ballet’s repertory, imagines Apollo as a youth, still a little raw and vulnerable, experimenting with three muses, discovering music and dance. And Mr. Stanley did not ignore that exploratory aspect of the role.
But, from his first motion, strumming his lyre with Pete Townshend-style arm-circling, Mr. Stanley was elegantly forceful. He was calm, confident, divinely cool. He gave the sense, fitting for a god, of already knowing what he was doing even as he was learning how to do it. This was a thrillingly authoritative debut.
In one important sense, Mr. Stanley is an unconventional Apollo. He’s not the blond Adonis (Peter Martins, Chase Finlay), or the city kid channeling high spirits into classicism (Jacques d’Amboise, Edward Villella, Robert Fairchild). He’s mixed-race — I’ve overheard audience members asking, “What is he?” — and dances with a gender-fluid quality, and that makes his debut a watershed. (Previously, Craig Hall was the only African-American to have performed the role with City Ballet, and he did it only once, in 2011.)
Yet in an equally important sense, Mr. Stanley is obviously suited for the role. Beyond his regal poise, he projects a sense of wildness under control. His energy is taut without stiffness, and as Apollo, he appeared to stretch even longer. There’s something otherworldly about him, appropriate in an immortal being.
Immortal, but not imperious. Mr. Stanley’s approach to the muses (the excellent Tiler Peck and Indiana Woodward, along with Brittany Pollack in a shaky debut) was firm but tender, playful but not overly familiar. This was, on the whole, a clean and unpretentious “Apollo,” and an especially musical one — making clear, as isn’t always the case, how each famous moment connects to the score.
Exemplary musicality was particularly welcome on Tuesday’s program, which, in honor of Balanchine’s birthday, celebrated his landmark collaborations with Igor Stravinsky. “Apollo” was their first, and when their “Agon” had its debut in 1957, the program was the same as Tuesday’s, a triple bill with their “Orpheus” (1948) in the middle.
In Greek mythology, Apollo is the father to Orpheus. And there are fascinating family resemblances among these three works. Yet they are very different. “Apollo,” with its mythological characters and sportive 1920s moves, is classic: antique without being antiquated. “Agon” — black and white, with no more story than the complex, dodecaphonic music and tensely intricate dance design — still defines modern ballet. (Even in Tuesday’s slightly muddy performance, which was shored up by the controlled, witty dancing of Anthony Huxley and the expertise of Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle in the pas de deux.)
“Orpheus,” though, has long floated in historical limbo. The symbolical scenery and costumes by Isamu Noguchi aren’t the only aspects reminiscent of Martha Graham’s Greek works. But they are the ones most likely to make a contemporary audience giggle: the circular plates like coconuts on the women’s breasts; the fake rocks and big, pointy things in the phallic underworld; a Pluto festooned with what look like eggplant-shaped water balloons.
It’s hard to feel the mystery in all this now, but facets of the choreography are also foreign. Orpheus begins in grieving stillness, and things don’t get much more lively after that, except in the kicking of the Furies and the Bacchantes who kill Orpheus, some of the silliest bits that Balanchine ever made.
The cast was entirely new (Gonzalo Garcia, an adequate Orpheus, makes his company debut as Apollo on Saturday), and had some success in bringing out the work’s beauties. The duet in which the Dark Angel (Peter Walker) entwines himself with Orpheus, physically willing him to make the music that will earn the escape of Eurydice (the sweet but unaffecting Sterling Hyltin), remained haunting.
Yet the parallel duet — of Eurydice entangled with Orpheus, trying to get him to look at her, not knowing that when she succeeds she will again die — was botched at its close. Eurydice, fallen dead, is meant to be pulled under the curtain by unseen forces — a chilling effect — but Mr. Garcia had to stuff her through.
It would take more than adjusting that to make “Orpheus” live fully as theater today. It’s historic in that sense, telling us mostly about the past. Mr. Stanley’s debut, on the other hand, was historic in the present tense. It tells us about something important happening at City Ballet right now.