New York City Ballet’s Winter Season: The Greeks – poetic art in Balanchine’s dances

Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in George Balanchine's Apollo. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik

New York city in February can be a challenge, even for those accustomed to the cold. One of the places that radiates warmth is Lincoln Center, a beacon of the arts. It is in the David H. Koch Theater, the home of the New York City Ballet, that I experienced a weekend of eclectic programs.

The matinee on Saturday, February 2 was composed of works by the well -known collaboration of Balanchine and Stravinsky. The Greeks dominated the afternoon with Apollo, Orpheus and Agon (which is  Greek in name only). Apollo was first on the bill, which seemed appropriate since it’s the oldest Balanchine ballet in New York City Ballet’s repertory. Created for the Ballet Russes in 1928, the ballet premiered with The New York City Ballet in 1951. Apollo tells the story of the god Apollo and his close association with the Muses, Calliope (poetry), Polyhymnia (mine) and Terpsichore (dance). Gonzaldo Gracia gave a masterful performance as Apollo, the young god. His was the god of conviction, of coming into his birthright. Sterling Hyltin is a playful Terpsichore whose movements seems to intrigue Apollo. Balanchine gives us poignant images such as when Apollo assumes “the eagle” pose; kneeling with his torso and head forward with his arms extended behind him; and the “sunburst” with all three Muses around Apollo, each Muse posing in arabesque at different heights. It’s a breathtaking moment, one that defines Balanchine’s Apollo and his vision of the artist as a young god.

Orpheus is a love story in the vein of Greek mythology. Orpheus is determined to extract his dead wife, Eurydice, from Hades with the promise to the Dark Angel that he will not look at her until they have returned to earth or she will die. Eurydice is unaware of this promise and does everything in her powers to tempt him to look at her. Ask La Cour is a determined and tormented Orpheus, doing everything in his power not to look at his wife, while Teresa Rechlen, as Eurydice, is seductive and relentless in her attempts to entice Orpheus. Their pas de deux is filled with angst for Orpheus as he tries to avoid succumbing to her seductive movements. He finally weakens and she is tragically lost to him forever.

Peter Walker in George Balanchine's Agon. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik
Peter Walker in George Balanchine’s Agon. Photo Credit Paul Kolnik

Long before there was the television program So You Think You Can Dance, there was Balanchine’s Agon (1957). Agon means a contest in Greek and there is an edge of competition in the piece, which is carried throughout. Agon is a world apart from Apollo and Orpheus in mood and choreography. It is a suite of dances that can be divided into three parts: the assembling of the contestants; the contest itself and lastly the dispersal of the contestants. The piece lists French social dances  in the program notes but there is nothing

French about the dance. It gives us pure classical ballet steps, performed with amazing speed and footwork. There are at times 12 dancers on stage but they have the energy of many more. There are many memorable moments: a dancer executing an arabesque penche upon the torso of her kneeling partner; a series of splits by a female dancer from side to side and then to the front. There are clear, pure lines and couples cleverly intertwined with each other. And there is always the rush and exhilaration of dancers as athletes. Agon is a perfect competition as there are no losers. Balanchine knew his Greek mythology, he knew the compositions of Stravinsky and he knew how to create poetic art in his dances.

Reviewed on 2nd of February at David H. Koch Theater

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