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Ode on a Grecian Urn

There was nothing new about the trio of works on show at New York City Ballet on May 10—“Apollo,” “Orpheus,” and “Agon,” except the pairing with a brief orchestral suite by Stravinsky at the start of the evening. Stravinsky’s “Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra” is a charmer, in the composer’s neoclassical style of the 1920’s, light, sparkling. Its second movement, a jaunty waltz for the flute, is like a playful out-take from “Petrushka.”

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra,” “Apollo,” “Orpheus,” “Agon”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY May 10, 2022

Words

Marina Harss

Sterling Hyltin and Joseph Gordon in “Orpheus” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

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The three Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations that followed are closely associated with the company’s history and identity. “Apollo,” originally composed for the Ballets Russes in 1928, has been danced by everyone from Jacques d’Amboise to Robert Fairchild. “Orpheus” was on the company’s very first program, in 1948. And “Agon,” from 1957, is perhaps the most well-known example of Balanchine’s musically-intelligent, sharp-edged, modernist style.

Seen together, they reveal the arc and reach of Balanchine’s imagination. Each ballet constructs its own world: luminous and experimental in “Apollo”; expressive and full of mystery in “Orpheus”; sharp and witty in “Agon.” The outlier here is “Orpheus,” with its striking designs by Isamu Noguchi: bulbous masks, strange, vein-like appliqués sewn onto leotards, and tubular protuberances meant to suggest the alien landscape of the underworld. With their heavy symbolism and archaic look, Noguchi’s designs point at a road not taken by Balanchine in later works. Still, they add atmosphere. Orpheus’s half-mask, which conceals his eyes, transforms him into a distant, mythical character. Noguchi’s soft-edged lyre is so striking that it became the company’s logo.

But “Orpheus” is also the most imperfect work in this Stravinsky trilogy. Not the music, which is dominated by the harp (a stand-in for Orpheus’s lyre), and strikes me as one of Stravinsky’s most lyrical, most affecting works. But Balanchine’s choreography is strangely inconsistent. Orpheus’s lament, at the beginning, is a masterpiece of sorrow. Orpheus stands, alone, at Eurydice’s grave, facing away from the audience, his body heavy and listless, like a figure in a William Blake painting. In his début, Joseph Gordon achieved just the right tone of melancholy, as if he had lost the will to live. His interactions with a mysterious “Dark Angel” (Andrew Scordato), who places Orpheus’s hands on his lyre and forces him to play, were haunting.

But then the ballet loses its way. The denizens of the underworld are depicted as silly monsters, jumping around and pawing at the air. (The furies, later, are equally ridiculous.) And the kittenish choreography for Eurydice’s solo lacks gravitas. (Sterling Hyltin, as Eurydice, did what she could with the thin material.) But then the ballet regains its footing: as the two set off on their voyage, the movement language again becomes interesting. At first, the two dancers step into big, clean arabesques, looking forward; gradually the partnering becomes clingy, grappling, fraught. Until finally she slips through his arms and, in a moment of thrilling theater, is pulled under a curtain and disappears. This moment, like the end of the ballet, in which a mask floats across the stage, accompanied by the harp, takes your breath away.

Taylor Stanley debuts in George Balanchine's “Apollo” with, clockwise from left, Brittany Pollack, Indiana Woodward and Tiler Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

There is no such discontinuity in “Apollo.” The pleasure here is in seeing how different dancers mold each character to their own personalities and way of dancing. Indiana Woodward, in her début as Calliope, muse of poetry, alternated between delight and despondency, dancing with her usual crispness and attack. Pollack’s Polyhymnia was a little pallid, but Tiler Peck brought her usual jazzy musicality and sense of theater to her interpretation of Terpsichore, muse of dance. And it seems to me that Taylor Stanley has reshaped the role of Apollo from that of a brash young hero-in-the-making to that of a thoughtful, searching, and delicate youth, driven by curiosity and a hunger for discovery. Stanley’s steps look etched, attentive, meticulously-shaped. He pays attention to every detail, down to the way he holds his hands, or places his fingers on his partner’s wrist. His Apollo is modest, inquisitive, thoughtful—not qualities one usually associates with this role.

Jovani Furlan in “Agon” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

There were notable débuts in the closing ballet, “Agon,” as well. Jovani Furlan danced the Sarabande with a kind of hunger, stretching and contracting his body as if testing how far he could go. Joined by Georgina Pazcoguin and Sara Adams (not débuts), the trio performed a jazzy, almost defiant coda. Pazcoguin and Adams were also stylish and playful in the courtly Gaillard. But it was Unity Phelan, stepping into the ballet’s climactic pas de deux, who seemed to finally find her place in the universe. How is it that she had never danced “Agon” before with New York City Ballet? (She has danced it, but not here; notably at the Vail Dance Festival, with Calvin Royal.)

Unity Phelan and Amar Ramasar in “Agon” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Joined by an experienced, attentive Amar Ramasar, Phelan used her flexibility and quiet glamor to maximum effect, pushing positions to a striking extreme while exuding serenity and quiet self-assurance, whether picking up her foot and holding it almost up to her head, or folding, supply, over her partner’s torso as he knelt on the ground. Their partnership, seemingly informed by a sense of trust and warmth, pushed both to a higher level of daring. As if encouraged by her freedom, Ramasar held a balance, in relevé, leg bent, while unfolding the other leg and leaning back with his torso, for a beat longer than usual. It was one of the most striking performances of this pas de deux I’ve seen. After it ended, the audience erupted in applause. Phelan looked elated; Ramasar, who retires at the end of the season, overwhelmed.

Moments like this are thrilling; they are one of the reasons we keep going back to see such familiar works. What will happen on this night? In this way, Balanchine and Stravinsky keep growing, changing, evolving.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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