Learning Apollo from the Master: A Conversation with Francia Russell

September 19, 2012

Body Beautiful

Some ballets take time to develop their full character and others change the face of the art form the minute they premiere.

Balanchine’s Apollo did both- evolving significantly over the first 20 years of its production history while consistently being hailed as the event that launched neoclassical ballet. It was the beginning of a deep lifelong creative partnership between Balanchine and Stravinsky, and it was one of the rare ballets that Balanchine always preferred to set on the dancers himself. One of the dancers who worked directly with Balanchine on Apollo was Christopher Stowell’s mother, Francia Russell, the retired co-artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and a former dancer under Balanchine at New York City Ballet.

In 2007, OBT Historian Linda Besant had the opportunity to sit down with Russell to discuss her experience of rehearsing Apollo with Balanchine. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

“When I was at New York City Ballet, Apollo was, in a way, sacred, partly because Mr. Balanchine always rehearsed it himself. To be chosen to dance one of the leading roles was a great, great honor. I don’t think there was anything else that was as much of an honor as being chosen to be Apollo or one of the Muses.”

“Balanchine played with Apollo, not so much changing the essence of the choreography, but the approach of different dancers. If you compare, for instance, the approach of Jacques d’Amboise and Peter Martins, nothing could be more different. Peter was an elegant, youthful Greek god, and Jacques had this rugged, awkward, adolescent, searching, earthy interpretation of it. Both interpretations worked equally well.”

From the book Balanchine: Celebrating a Life in Dance, this image shows George Balanchine working with NY City Ballet dancer Patricia McBride.

On the Muses:

Apollo represented Balanchine’s “Gentle exploration of the modern plastique movement that was being presented so much at that time… All of that is intertwined with classical ballet in a way that created a new vocabulary. There are some moments that for a purely classical dancer seem kind of awkward, but they fuse the modern plastique movement with classical technique. It has to be performed by the most purely classical dancers, but they have to allow themselves to be a little bit awkward at times. Things like walking on the heels, and crouching, and the wide-open mouths like you see in statues of actors in classical Greek theater.”

“For dancers, it’s a work where you feel as though you’re part of an almost mystical, quasi-religious experience. The feeling between Apollo and the Muses is so powerful. I guess it’s the combination of the music and the choreography, and some of the choreography is very simple. The whole last part of the ballet, which Balanchine called “Parnassus,” is so simple and so beautiful, some of it’s walking, but it’s perfect, expressing the relationship of the four of them. And the shapes of it are beautiful- when each Muse lifts her toe up to her hand and Apollo reaches out and over. There’s something about it that is like looking at a great painting. It gives you that rush of joy. The ballet is full of those moments.

This image shows NY City Ballet dancers Peter Martins, Karin von Aroldingen, Suzanne Farrell and Kyra Nichols performing the coda from Apollo in 1980. From the book Discovering Balanchine, B.H. Haggin, Plate 29.  Photo: Martha Swope.

“There are few works that have been so consistently performed over such a long period of time, and are revered by dancers, audiences, and dance scholars. There’s no discussion, it is one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.”

Here we see Sofia Gumerova, Igor Zelensky, Daria Pavlenko and Veronika Part, from Francia Russell’s staging of Apollo at the Kirov Ballet in 1998. From the book Balanchine: Celebrating a Life in Dance, Costas. P. 28.

“Within the choreography itself, within the individual variations, there are beautiful shapes created with the human body. It is somewhat akin to Swan Lake, in that it was a new vocabulary really identified with a specific work, the same way Swan Lake is iconic because of the port de bras of the swans.”

Francia Russell works in the Oregon Ballet Theatre studios with former OBT Dancer Ronnie Underwood during rehearsals for the 2007 performance of Apollo. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

And it was certainly one of the most rewarding things I ever danced. I think partly because the choreography and its relationship to the music are very stimulating, because it all works together so magnificently. The integration of movement and music in Apollo is especially pure—that sense of inevitability that Balanchine’s choreography has, that there is no other movement that could be executed to that bar of music. There isn’t any other way to conceive of it.”

“If I had one piece of advice for any member of the audience who wants to understand Apollo, I would say, go see it over and over, because the riches of the ballet are too much to take in at one viewing.”

You can see Apollo, one of four short works on our Body Beautiful program, October 13 – 20 at the Keller Auditorium.

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About Trisha Mead

Connoisseur of vivid verbs, late night conversations, small batch bourbons and anything you can set fire to in a desert. Food obsessed grower of fine young men and fines herbs.Believes that no work of art is complete until the perfect audience is assembled to experience it. Hobby: creating the future.

View all posts by Trisha Mead

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