Apollo’s Mother: Re-thinking the Past and Future at NYCB

In recent weeks the New York dance world – and the New York City Ballet in particular – has been reeling from shocking and painful news. Three male dancers left NYCB (one resigned and two were dismissed) over conduct in violation of the company’s policies. Entirely unrelated but soon after, former NYCB dancer and beloved instructor Peter Frame died tragically and unexpectedly. On the heels of this, the international dance community suddenly found itself mourning the death of Paul Taylor, a towering presence–literally and figuratively–in the history of American dance.

Confronting news such as this is difficult, and everyone must grieve and reflect in their own way. (Anyone considering self-harm should call 1-800-273-8255 for help.) It’s perhaps no surprise that my processing of these events has taken a historical turn, with an eye towards how knowledge of the past can help us think about the present and future. I keep returning to Apollo as I grapple with this news in part because one of the few dancers I’ve seen portray the lead role is Chase Finlay, who resigned from NYCB. (Updated: The disturbing behavior that Finlay is accused of has now been made public.) This personal connection aside, the complex past of Apollo offers a way to acknowledge the uncertainties of the present. And a new approach to the ballet–one that restores the role of Apollo’s mother, Leto–would contribute productively to reimagining NYCB’s future.

First to the past and present. George Balanchine’s Apollo is regarded as one of the choreographer’s most significant ballets. Since it was premiered in Paris in 1928 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes it has been continuously performed – the earliest ballet by Balanchine to hold this distinction. Balanchine himself regarded Apollo as an especially significant turning point in his development as a choreographer. Today the ballet is regularly performed by companies around the world, including by the New York City Ballet, and is regarded as a quintessential example of Balanchine’s neoclassical style.

Being cast as Apollo or one of the three (female) muses by whom the young god is taught in the course of the work is a mark of achievement in the career of any dancer. The men who created and recreated the role represent a distinguished lineage, including the likes of Lew Christensen, Jacques d’Amboise, and Peter Martins. (It’s tantalizing to think of what Paul Taylor might have made of the role.) Apollo holds the special status of being a serious work of art that is also an audience favorite and box office draw.

But let’s delve a little more deeply into the past. What most people don’t realize is that in America, Apollo was initially not so beloved as it is today. Known by its original French title, Apollon Musagète was met with indifference at best and hostility at worst upon its American premiere in April 1937 as part of a two-day Stravinsky Festival at the Metropolitan Opera. Instead of proving the genius of Balanchine’s pure neoclassicism, the ballet confirmed his reputation as a radical modernist with a penchant for the idiosyncratic and bizarre. Apollo was more or less a flop, critiqued and dismissed on almost every level.

Dance Observer, a monthly magazine closely associated with modern dance circles, found little to praise in Apollon Musagète and called Balanchine to task for creating movement that was unnatural for American dancers to perform and selecting themes that were too European in character: “[Balanchine’s] chief error lies in the choice of movement and concept so foreign to the American idiom. In a world wherein we find ourselves the youngest and most vital nation, the European cachet has long lost its potency.” They paid the ballet one backhanded compliment, saying that it “has a certain preciosity which gives it novelty, or did so when it was new” in 1920s Paris.

Musical America, a more mainstream publication, gave the ballet a different kind of double-edged praise. The ballet’s movement was “attractive in line if of an arty simplicity that is first cousin to the affectation in Stravinsky’s adroit score.” Another critic noted how Apollon was “one of the most tiresome of all Stravinsky’s scores,” and Balanchine’s choreography “was not of the sort to redeem it.” Yet another was unimpressed by the manner in which the young god Apollo “wrestled with three girls through some extremely ridiculous patterns, to music which hardly enhances Stravinsky’s reputation.”

The publication The American Dancer summed up the mixed reception of Apollon Musagète as follows, in words that are difficult to square with the ballet’s esteemed status today:

The choreography is bizarre, and it is in this rather affected form that Balanchine excels, giving rein to his imagination. Its flights frequently border on the line of insanity, achieving fascinating and exotic distortions; but–alas–they occasionally go completely over the border, resulting in sheer madnesses. However, these are at least usually diverting if nothing else. […] I find his originality stimulating, though the audience obviously did not.

It’s hard to make sense of these critiques and observations. They come across as unbelievable if not sacrilegious given the present-day stature of this work. I have no doubt that a few readers might dismiss them as made up or at least unimportant or insignificant given the eventual success of the ballet (not to mention its choreographer) in America. It’s as if these unsavory quotes are being dredged up to sully the ballet’s sterling reputation. Why would I want to “ruin” Apollo by circulating these kinds of comments? Why voice these unflattering truths now, so many years after the fact?

I trust many readers see where this is going. If we can’t face simple facts such as these–which concern only the critical reception of a ballet–how are we to reckon with the much more serious unpleasant truths about the past and present that the present #metoo moment is forcing us to reckon with? And in fact, these simple facts are anything but simple or inconsequential. It seems almost every day are learning that beneath the beautiful surfaces of art works we love, such as Apollo, are troubling secrets and damaged lives. Among other things we know that one Apollo mentioned above, Peter Martins, abused his position of power, leading to his resignation at the end of last year. Reaching back further into history, the research of dance scholar Mark Franko has revealed dark truths about Balanchine’s original Apollo, Serge Lifar. Franko has unearthed substantial evidence to show that the dancer and choreographer was a willing collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Paris during the Second World War. The transgressions of men who portrayed the role do not necessarily implicate the ballet itself. But these and other disturbing aspects of Apollo‘s past represent an invitation–if not an obligation–to reconsider its future.

Indeed, it’s timely to acknowledge that for most of its life, Apollo was longer than its present form (you can view it here in a performance from the 1960s). Most notably, it included the dramatic birthing of Apollo by his mother Leto, a visceral if stylized depiction of childbirth that Balanchine subsequently eliminated from the ballet. This is one aspect of the ballet that likely contributed to its negative reception by American audiences in the 1930s.

Now that there is clearly no danger of Balanchine’s “bizarre” choreography being misunderstood, I would argue that now is time to bring the birth of Apollo, and along with it Apollo’s mother, back to Apollo. What a powerful statement this would be, and what a meaningful way to embrace the ballet’s complex past, acknowledge the troubles of the moment, and rethink the ballet’s future. Restoring the birth of Apollo would place another female body onstage, a powerful mother, no less– indeed a Titan and mother of not just Apollo but the hunter Artemis (Diana). Equally important and not unrelated, this change would offer a chance to revisit the dubious permanence and stasis that characterizes Balanchine’s legacy today. During his life Balanchine was constantly changing and reinventing his ballets, a dynamism that ended at his death. Reimagining one of his most canonical ballets–in a version that he himself had previously overseen, it should be noted–would remind us that he was as an artist whose works were constantly changing, not preserved in amber. As the New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet seek for new leadership, this kind of broad-mindedness and reflection would be all the more welcome.

By adding Apollo’s mother back to Apollo it’s not as though Balanchine’s now “definitive” version would be lost. And while we’re at it, we could even, gasp, select a woman–Tiler Peck perhaps?–to oversee this new production. Put differently, one might say that “time’s up” for Apollo without Apollo’s mother. How long should the birth of Apollo stay in Apollo? Good question. Maybe until a woman is the artistic leader of New York City Ballet, or until a woman is President of the United States. It’s entirely uncertain which glass ceiling will break first.


2 thoughts on “Apollo’s Mother: Re-thinking the Past and Future at NYCB

  1. Keep writing and educating us readers and dancers, James Steichen. These are crucial times for the NYCB, for those in it, and those in its audiences

  2. Pingback: George Balanchine: mythology and reality | OUPblog

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