The second program of the New York City Ballet’s “Balanchine Black & White” festival was dedicated exclusively to Balanchine-Stravinsky ballets, honoring the most extraordinary creative partnership in twentieth century arts. Balanchine was Stravinsky’s most devoted advocate and promoter; like no other choreographer he respected, understood and adhered to the composer’s musical philosophy and values. “Balanchine employed his choreography as a conduit through which the message of Stravinsky’s music could be clarified and strengthened,” wrote Charles M. Joseph in his book Stravinsky’s Ballets, describing this unique artistic alliance.
Stravinsky was a genuine ballet composer; he grasped the spirit, purpose and lexicon of dance better than any other musician of his time. Balanchine was a genius choreographer who had an exceptionally astute music taste and comprehensive understanding of musical principles and traditions. Divine providence (and Serge Diaghilev) brought them together in 1926. From the start, they forged an enduring friendship and collaboration that lasted a lifetime and produced some of the most celebrated and important ballets of the neoclassical catalogue. To this day they comprise the core of the New York City Ballet repertory.
The program opened with “Apollo,” a ballet that marked a starting point of the Balanchine-Stravinsky legacy. It’s the oldest surviving ballet by Balanchine, created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and premiered in Paris in 1928 under the title “Apollon Musagète.” At that time, the choreographer was just 24-years old. Originally performed with elaborate Greek attire and set decorations, the ballet was refurbished and altered multiple times. Over the course of his career, Balanchine would return to the illustration of the young god’s life again and again, simplifying the story and fine-tuning the choreography. The company currently performs the abridged and décor-less revision from 1979, danced in white leotards and tiny skirts for the muses and white tights and a chest-baring sash for Apollo.
“It’s an untarnished masterpiece . . . “Apollo” is about poetry, poetry in the sense of a brilliant, sensuous, daring, and powerful activity of our nature . . . it is a homage to classicism’s sensuous loveliness as well as to its brilliant exactitude and its science of dance effect,” wrote dance critic Edwin Denby about Balanchine-Stravinsky’s first creation, which signified the birth of neoclassical ballet.
As Apollo, Adrian Danchig-Waring embraced his role with eager passion and enthusiasm. Tall, lean and dashing, he was an embodiment of male elegance and effortless charisma. There was nothing tentative and awkward about this young god. From the first moment, Danchig-Waring invested his character with heroic dignity. This Apollo was captivating in his youthful ardor; and the sweeping virtuosity of his dancing sealed his hero’s destiny as leader and protector of the arts.
Apollo’s interactions with a trio of muses—Calliope (poetry), Polyhymnia (mime) and Terpsichore (dance)—who help him ascertain and accumulate his power, are the central and most communicative moments of the ballet. As he gradually grows into his own spiritual divinity, the young god shapes and assembles his muses into sculptural poses and symmetrical constellations, creating the images of wondrous invention and beauty.
The effervescent Lauren Lovette was wonderfully animated as Calliope; Ashly Isaacs gave an ebullient performance as Polyhymnia; but it was the enthralling Tiler Peck, in the role of Terpsichore, who truly captivated the audience and Apollo alike. Beautifully etching her every step, suave and sophisticated, she brought to her part enough hypnotic allure and technical prowess to enchant and inspire a god and then some. Her dancing brilliantly balanced boldness and gentleness, sharpness and delicacy, grandeur and spontaneity, affirming her right place as Apollo’s favorite muse.
Stravinsky was 75-years old when he completed the score for “Agon,” the second ballet on the bill. The music’s sharp pulse, hard-edged rhythms, thorny texture, and multifaceted and audaciously modernist sonic landscape were a world apart from the lush and lyrical sounds of “Apollo.” Agon was never easy listening, and was hardly a staple of concert halls. “Were it not for Balanchine’s arresting visualization, audiences probably would not have responded to Stravinsky’s score as enthusiastically as they did,” noted Charles M. Joseph in his book “Stravinsky and Balanchine.”
Indeed, Balanchine’s choreography for “Agon” became an indispensable visual guide for anyone who wished to grasp and appreciate the essence of Stravinsky’s composition. Premiered in 1957, the ballet signified the apex of the Balanchine-Stravinsky craftsmanship, becoming the gold standard of neoclassicism in ballet.
It was a thrill to see the NYCB dancers in this epic work, now considered the company’s signature. Andrew Veyette imbued Sarabande-step with an athletic swagger and theatrical fervor; never before had I seen this number danced with such a pronounced personal inflection. His final bow was as keenly exaggerated as were his over-reaching extensions, lunges and kicks. Veyette took it all to the extremes, giving a knockout rendition of the role.
To watch Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar testing the possibilities and limits of their convoluted relationship in the ballet’s central pas de deux, which evoked both passionate affair and unnerving face-off, was to be endlessly amazed at the sheer mastery and superb artistry of these two exceptional dancers. Calm, daring and dignified, Kowroski wrapped her stunning limbs around Ramasar’s muscular body, her every pose evoking ancient sculpture. She enticed him with inviting splits of her legs and alluring folds of her torso—a predator, seductress and goddess all in one.
Ashley Hod and Lauren King also left a memorable impression, dancing Gailliard with youthful vitality and exactitude; and Davin Alberda, Daniel Applebaum and Rebecca Krohn sparkled in Second Pas de Trois, complete with an enticing castanet-snapping Bransle Gay.
The second half of the program was devoted to ballets which Balanchine created for NYCB’s 1972 Stravinsky festival, honoring and extending the 50-year artistic bond with his mentor, friend and compatriot.
“Duo Concertant” is an intimate and lyrical five-movement piece for a female and a male dancer. It’s set to Stravinsky’s composition of the same title, which composer wrote for and dedicated to violinist Samuel Dushkin, with whom he premiered the work in Berlin in 1932.
In “Duo Concertant,” the dancers (Ashley Bouder and Anthony Huxley) shared the stage with the musicians (violinist Arturo Delmoni and pianist Nancy McDill). In this utterly theatrical piece the choreography gave special prominence to Stravinsky’s music: during the opening Cantilène, both dancers stood motionlessly behind the piano and listened attentively to the musicians. Only facial expressions registered their growing inspiration and excitement. They were visibly overwhelmed by the music, every muscle of their bodies imploring them to dance.
Gliding onstage with appealing glow and poetic elegance, Bouder and Huxley captured the pulse and spirit of the music and choreography. Huxley was the more romantic and subtle of the two; but the ever-bubbly Bouder, in a role which called upon quiet grace and delicacy of movement, was able to find all the right accents, finely emphasizing the piece’s gentle lyricism and elusive mystery.
This superb program culminated with a stirring performance of “Symphony in Three Movements.” Choreographed to Stravinsky’s so-called War Symphony (Stravinsky worked on the score during 1942-45), this ballet proved the highlight of the 1972 Stravinsky festival.
Instantly captivating in its flawless geometry, the ballet’s opening image—the exquisite diagonal of ponytailed ballerinas in white leotards—always leaves me breathless. As the dancers scattered onstage, their fast, spiky movements from time to time turned into an invigorating jog. The vigorous steps of the choreography perfectly matched the jazzy athleticism of Stravinsky’s score; and the rapid and elaborate permutations of the ensemble often clashed with those of the leading dancers, creating a sense of tension, even a battle.
The entire cast rose to the occasion, performing with admirable brio, vibrancy and sparkle. A special note goes to the lissome Sterling Hyltin and Taylor Stanley. Their meditative, fluid duet in the ballet’s second movement gave this grand and forceful piece an unexpectedly gentle heart.