Becoming a God: Balanchine’s Advice to His Apollos

September 20, 2012

Body Beautiful

Ib Anderson as Apollo. From Balanchine: Celebrating a Life in Dance. Photo by Costas.

What does it take to don the mantle of a newborn god?

The role of Apollo has been coveted by dancers, in part because it was a role that Balanchine liked to rehearse himself, customizing the interpretation to suit each Apollo he worked with, including some of the greatest dancers of the day. Lew Christensen, Jacques d’Amboise, Mikhail Baryshnikov… each dancer created a unique Apollonian legacy.

So what advice did Balanchine give to his Apollos?

Balanchine liked to say that he should be a “wild, half-human youth who acquires nobility through art.”

Lew Christensen as Apollo in 1937. Photo by Richard Tucker.

To Lew Christensen he said,  “You are a woodcutter, a swimmer, a football player, a god.”

Pictured are Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams and Andre Eglevsky in a New York City Ballet performance from 1951. Photo by Fred Fehl.

In Nancy Reynold’s excellent dance history book Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet, she remarks that he “told some of his young interpreters to look at Greek vases and friezes- his figures often make planar pictures, with a twist in the torso, as if arrested for an instant between two sheets of glass.”

This marble frieze from the side of the Parthenon shows Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis. Dates from about 442 BC.

He never liked to explain what a gesture or phrase meant, though he sometimes told a dancer what inspired him. Terry Teachout, in his book All in the Dances shares, “He told [Edward] Villella that [the opening and closing fists in one section of the ballet] were inspired by the flashing lights in Piccadilly Circus [and] were so different from the Soviet Union… ‘awful place, no color, no paint. Lousy. No light.’”

Edward Villella, retired artistic director of The Miami City Ballet, as Apollo in the 1950s at New York City Ballet. Photo by Martha Swope.

Balanchine encouraged each Apollo to bring his own unique skill set to the role.

Arlene Croce of the New Yorker said of Lew Christensen that he seemed to have “incarnated the image of an Olympic all-rounder.”

Jacques d’Amboise as Apollo in the 1950s. Photo by Martha Swope.

 Croce described Jacques d’Amboise as the “model of rangy athletic grace.”

Peter Martins as Apollo in 1980. Photo by Martha Swope.

Peter Martins, by contrast, was criticized for being too elegant for the role. One critic wrote, “it must be the only role in which his looks and his magnificent noble style work against him.  He is unswervingly accurate in every step, yet he can’t really show the god growing up . . .”

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Apollo in 1978 at the New York City Ballet. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Mikhail Baryshnikov considered Apollo a signature role… and the New Yorker agreed, saying that he “alone of the Apollos… understands how the dancing might supply the percussive dimension that is absent in the score.”

It’s a deep legacy, but fortunately one that also leaves plenty of space for fresh interpretation.

So how are our own dancers approaching the role of Apollo?

We asked Principal Dancers Chauncey Parsons and Brett Bauer to share some of their reactions to learning the role.

Chauncey Parsons explains:

I like is this idea of “a wild thing that is tamed and made noble through art.” When the god is born he is as filled with wonder at the world as any newborn baby- every sight is a new experience. But he’s still not human. He’s bigger than that. People sometimes say of a pianist or dancer that they “came out of the womb” doing what they do. No person could actually do that- they have to train, learn. But in the case of a god, he really can. They place a lute in his hand and his first pluck of the strings is already a masterful work. He doesn’t know what it is…its wondrous to him.

I see Apollo as always filled with wonder, and marveling at the glory of himself and the world around himself. Not conceited, but simply “wow, that was pretty good, wasn’t it?” and “everything that’s done under the sun is done under me… and it is good.” He is a simple person… he’ll never be disappointed by anything he encounters. He won’t necessarily be satisfied by everything he encounters but he’ll always find it interesting.”

Brett Bauer, by contrast, has enjoyed diving into the theatrical side of the role. One of his strong suits is character development and storytelling, and Apollo provides a rich legacy of myth to draw from in the creation of the role. He also feels that his unusual height impacts the choices that he makes as Apollo.

The role requires a kind of imposing nobility, which he explains is “pretty easy when you have six feet of reach.” But it also requires fleet-footed agility, and that doesn’t always come naturally to taller guys. “You really need to get a move on, ” he chuckles, “and I think people don’t expect that of someone my size.”

What does Bauer relate to most about the role?

“He’s got strength,” Bauer muses, “but he’s playful. Childlike. And I can have a playful, childlike approach to things too.”

You’ll have the opportunity to see Brett Bauer and Chauncey Parsons as Apollo during Oregon Ballet Theatre’s  Body Beautiful program, playing October 13 – 20th 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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