Apollo is, for many reasons, one of George Balanchine’s most important ballets. For starters, it’s the oldest one that survives, dating from 1928, when a 24-year-old Balanchine was working in Paris for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. (Shockingly, it is also his eighty-fourth composition.) Apollo also marked the start of Balanchine’s collaboration and friendship with Igor Stravinsky, the great modern composer whose works he would use — and commission — throughout his career as a choreographer. But perhaps most important, Apollo taught Balanchine a skill that would assist him in creating innumerable other masterpieces: how to edit his ideas. “In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained one-ness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation,” he later wrote. “It seems to tell me that I could dare not use everything, and I, too, could eliminate.”
Historical significance aside, it also happens to be a very good ballet, brimming with humanity, elegant simplicity, and images both memorable and moving. New York City Ballet now has a new Apollo in Chase Finlay, a young member of the corps de ballets who, with his height and golden hair, certainly looks the part of a god. Finlay’s performances Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon were a delight — enthusiastic, inspired, and utterly convincing. It’s true he doesn’t move with the command and control of a seasoned principal (the role originally was to be danced by Robert Fairchild, currently injured), but it’s thrilling to see a ballet about discovering one’s powers performed by a dancer who, in his own career, is doing just that.
The ballet opens with Apollo strumming away at his lute to the lush sounds of Stravinsky’s score. The three muses — Polyhymnia (Ana Sophia Scheller), Calliope (Tiler Peck), and Terpsichore (Sterling Hyltin) — enter from separate corners, approaching Apollo with a canon of high kicks before bowing to him. Caressing the air, he pulls them into a line, then with another sweep of the arm propels them across the stage, their eyes closed as they tiptoe on point. Molding the muses into a variety of poses, he’s the artist at work: exploring, discovering, creating.
Apollo then assumes the role of critic, sitting to watch the muses perform solos. First up is Polyhymnia, the muse of poetry, whose upward arm gestures suggest violent explosions of speech. As she dances, the outbursts become more painful until she finally gives up and walks off, defeated. (Some critics suggest she fails because she suffers from writer’s block, in a sense.) Next comes Calliope, the muse of mime, who holds her index finger to her mouth to signal that she mustn’t speak. She lets her legs do the talking, spiraling wildly around the stage, but in a moment of weakness spreads both arms and opens her mouth wide. Embarrassed, she sprints past Apollo into the wings.
Terpsichore, the muse of dance, fares better — this is a ballet, after all — by performing a seductive, three-dimensional solo that brings Apollo to his feet. After dancing a brief solo variation — “I’m alive!” shout his high leaps and soccer-like kicks — he invites Terpsichore to join him in a duet. Apollo crouches on one knee, allowing Terpsichore to lie on top of his back and swim in the air. She looks like the figurehead on a ship. He is her vehicle: With man’s help, the muse soars.
Saturday afternoon’s performance was followed by a free onstage demonstration and discussion of Apollo, featuring Peter Martins and Balanchine Variations author Nancy Goldner, as well as Finlay and Hyltin, who performed passages of the choreography. A former Apollo himself, Martins shared amusing anecdotes from his early rehearsals with Balanchine (What does Apollo’s recurring five-finger flash mean? “Nothing.”), debated the value of Balanchine’s cuts to the ballet in 1978, and gently corrected elements of Finlay’s execution. Finlay, almost always grinning sincerely, took the criticism in stride, humbly aware that there’s room to grow.
Be that as it may, the first two New York performances showed more than promise. Finlay — and the three woman playing the muses — perform this 1928 work with refreshing vigor, as if it were something new. At the ballet’s end, when the others rejoin Finlay and Hyltin to form the iconic “sun god” pose with the muses’ legs fanned in arabesque, we believe in Apollo’s powers of expression. And Finlay’s.
Upward and onward: Parnassus awaits.