“Apollo” is about poetry, poetry in the sense of a brilliant, sensuous, daring, and powerful activity of our nature . . . Balanchine has told this metaphysical story in the concrete terms of classical dancing, in a series of episodes of rising power and brilliance. Extraordinary is the richness with which he can, with only four dancers, create a sustained and more and more satisfying impression of the grandness of man’s creative genius . . .”1 So wrote Edwin Denby, eloquently and incisively describing the very essence of George Balanchine’s untarnished masterpiece.
Poetry, daring, expressive power and technical brilliance were abundantly on display during the performance of “Apollo,” which opened the mixed program of the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in March.
“Apollo” has been in the repertory of the National Ballet for 20 years. The current production is finely staged by the company’s associate artistic director Christopher Stowell and principal ballet master Lindsay Fischer. For the most part, it stays true to the original version of “Apollo” that Stravinsky and Balanchine created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes more than 90 years ago. It contains the 1928 ballet’s prologue, depicting Apollo’s birth scene and his first solo, in which Apollo makes his initial awkward steps towards physical and spiritual growth and maturity. This production also retains the original ballet’s finale, where the young god is shown in all his glory and splendor, triumphantly ascending the Mount Parnassus, together with his three muses, Calliope (the muse of poetry), Polyhymnia (the muse of mime), and Terpsichore (the muse of dance). (Though, strangely, this staging omits Apollo’s mother Leto and her two handmaidens from the final scene of the ballet.)
It’s such a gift to experience “Apollo” in its full, even if slightly altered, version which preserves not only the integrity of Stravinsky’s momentous score but also the logical and dramatic core of the story itself. (In 1979, Balanchine created a reduced version of “Apollo,” cutting some of the most theatrical moments of the plot to focus chiefly on “the poetic beauty of dancing.” New York City Ballet performs this shortened, pure-dance rendition of “Apollo” to this day.)
In his debut as Apollo, principal dancer Francesco Gabriele Frola invested his dancing and characterization with the right dose of youthful eagerness, curiosity and vulnerability. In the beginning of the ballet, his Apollo gave the impression of a rough, inexperienced youth, who was testing his power and strength, still unsure of his potential and unaware of his divine destiny.
In the prologue, after he unwrapped himself from his swaddling cloth, his hero looked appropriately slight and meek, his first steps tentative and timid. But as the ballet progressed, his character, under the guidance and tutelage of the muses, acquired not only noble bearing but also a palpable sense of self-assurance and control; his gestures became graceful and eloquent, his manners imposing and dignified. Frola imbued his solos with a perfect mix of ardor and lyricism; his tender duet with Terpsichore felt deeply personal and poetic, even sensual.
A supreme technician, with a gorgeous classical line, Svetlana Lunkina danced the role of Terpsichore with delicacy, elegance and warmth. Her astute sense of musicality and timing, as well as her crisp footwork and sheer loveliness of her performance made her heroine a true standout.
Jillian Vanstone was a perky and alluring Polyhymnia. As Calliope, the supple and willowy Miyoko Koyasu made a strong impression as well, dancing with charming vivacity and playful wit.
After the intermission, the company brought onstage “Night”—a propulsive and convoluted, if not always coherent, work by Canadian choreographer Julia Adam. Set to the dynamic score by Matthew Pierce and inspired by the phantasmagoric imagery of Marc Chagall, this piece was originally created for San Francisco Ballet in 2000, when Adam was still a dancer with that company. It’s a quirky ballet where too many things happen at once. The piece unfolds as a series of solos, duets and ensembles that create a busy, kaleidoscopic atmosphere on the stage to little emotional effect. As the ballet’s lone protagonist, Skylar Campbell made the most of his challenging role, spending a great deal of time in mid-air, being lifted, carried and suspended by his fellow dancers in what looked like an endless whimsical flight.
The same emotional flatness marred a trio titled “The Sea Above, The Sky Below” which was created by the National Ballet’s choreographic associate Robert Binet. The sinuous Hannah Fischer was all rippling arms and flowing turns; and her partners, Brendan Saye and Christopher Gerty, provided her with a capable support. Still, this piece felt emotionally empty and somewhat superficial; even the soundtrack—the sublime Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5—didn’t help.
The evening ended on a high note with an exuberant performance of “Paquita,” or rather its most famous pure-dance excerpt known as “Grand Pas Classique”—an enduring staple of the 19th-century classical ballet repertory and a shiny example of Petipa’s choreographic genius. The ballet unfurls as a string of glittering variations for the female corps de ballet and a grand pas de deux for the leading couple, all accompanied by the cheerful bombastic melodies by Ludwig Minkus. It’s a perfect, uplifting finale and the National Ballet’s cast didn’t disappoint. The principals, Heather Ogden and Harrison James, did a particularly fine job, nailing the supreme challenges of the choreography with virtuosic skill and grandeur, thus treating the audience to a truly ravishing rendition of their roles.