This Jean Raoux painting from the 1700s depicts Orpheus and Eurydice leaving the underworld. In the back left you can see Hades (god of the underworld) and his wife Persephone, who have been charmed into granting Orpheus’ plea by the beauty of his music.
A hero. A muse. A god. A nymph. A beautiful youth. A tragic bride. The ballets on the Body Beautiful program are peopled with some of the most enduring archetypes of the human imagination. Each choreographer has interpreted these ancient figures in different ways, to suit their own artistic purposes, of course, and none of the ballets are meant to be literal recreations of the mythic moments that inspired them.
Still, a little insight into the deities and damsels behind the dances can be useful to provide some perspective on the performance. With that in mind, here’s a handy reference guide to the muses and myths that have inspired our Body Beautiful ballets.
Apollo: One of the pantheon of Olympian Gods, Apollo is traditionally depicted as the god of light, the sun, music, order, truth, prophesy and the healing/illness. The son of Zeus by Leto, a woman whose great beauty was disguised by tranformation into a swan, Apollo was considered the ideal of “beardless, athletic youth.” As leader of the muses, he functioned as the patron god of the arts. His twin sister Artemis (not depicted in the ballet) was the virgin goddess of the hunt. See him in: Balanchine’s Apollo, the first work on the program.
Fun Fact: The founder of the ballet tradition, Louis the XIV of France, liked to appear at parties dressed as Apollo. Some speculate that the ballet practice of “turn out” of the legs began as a way for him to show off the golden sun shaped buckles on his shoes.
This pen and ink sketch of Calliope by Albrecht Durer was created in the 1490s.
Calliope: The muse of epic poetry, Calliope is said to be the muse who inspired Homer to write The Iliad and The Odyssey. She is also the mother of Orpheus, considered the greatest musician hero of classical antiquity. She was considered the wisest and most assertive of the muses, and is frequently depicted with a scroll or writing tablet in her hand. See her in: Balanchine’s Apollo, the first work on the program.
This painting of the mountain nymph Echo is by Alexandre Cabanel and dates from the 1880s.
Echo: A mountain nymph with the gift of the gab, Echo used to collude with Zeus, telling his jealous wife Hera long and complicated stories to distract her while Zeus went frolicking among the other nymphs. When Hera discovered her trickery, she punished Echo by cursing her to only be able to repeat the words of others. One day, she fell in love with a youth named Narcissus, but could only get his attention by repeating his own words back to him.Vain and distracted, he rejects her, and she steals away to a mountain glen where she sobs until only her voice and her bones remain to walk the earth, repeating the words of others. You’ll meet her in: Ekho, the world premiere ballet that is the centerpiece of the program.
George Frederick Watts painted this image of Orpheus and Eurydice in the fatal moment when he looks back, sending her back to the underworld for eternity… Painting dates to mid- 1800s.
Eurydice: The wife of Orpheus and the daughter of Apollo, Eurydice was attacked on her wedding day by a satyr, causing her to fall into tall grass and be bitten by a poisonous snake. She descends to the underworld, where she is nearly rescued when Orpheus charms Hades and Persephone into allowing him to lead her back to the surface world. You’ll meet her in: Orpheus Portrait, Kent Stowell’s re-imagining of her story as an intimate pas de deux.
Here is Caravaggio’s interpretation of the beautiful Narcissus, painted in the Baroque period in the 1590s.
Narcissus: An exceptionally beautiful young hunter, Narcissus was so vain he automatically disdained anyone who fell in love with him. His vanity caused him to reject Echo, but rebounded on him when he fell in love with his own reflection in a lake. Mesmerized, he wasted away until all that was left of him were the flowers that still bear his name. You’ll meet him (and his reflection) in Ekho, the world premiere Christopher Stowell ballet at the heart of the Body Beautiful program.
Fun fact: The narcissus, or daffodil, is known to be poisonous if the bulb is eaten. However, at least one variety is under commercial cultivation as a key source of an ingredient being used successfully in Alzheimer’s medication.
In this art nouveau rendering of Orpheus, we see him charming the birds and beasts with his lyre. Painting by Franz Stuck, 1891.
Orpheus: The son of the muse Calliope, Orpheus was an epic hero revered for his extraordinary musical gifts. It was said he could charm the rocks, snakes and trees to do his bidding through his music. The one true love of his life, Eurydice, was bitten by a snake on their wedding day. Distraught, Orpheus descended to the underworld to plead for her return. His music succeeded in charming Hades and Persephone, but there was a catch: He had to lead Eurydice out of the underworld without ever turning back to look on her face. At the last moment, he looks back…. and loses her forever. You’ll meet Orpheus in Kent Stowell’s Orpheus Portrait, the second work on the Body Beautiful program.
This John Singer Sargent painting from the 1920s depicts Apollo with all nine muses.
Polyhymnia: The most pensive of the muses, Polyhymnia was credited with mime, meditation and geometry, making her the muse of mathemeticians and scholars. You’ll meet Polyhymnia in Balanchine’s Apollo, the first work on the program.
Fun fact: The character Polly O’Keefe in Madeline L’Engle’s classic young adult science fiction series A Wrinkle in Time is named for Polyhymnia.
Here Terpsichore is depicted with her rhythmic triangle by Eustache Le Seur in 1652.
Terpsichore: The last of the three muses depicted in Balanchine’s Apollo, Terpsichore is the muse of the dance. She is also the mother of the Sirens, the beautiful wicked creatures who lured sailors to their death in the Odyssey. Ironically it was Orpheus, son of the muse Calliope, who defeated the Sirens by playing music so loud and so beautifully that he drowned out their siren song. You can see Terpsichore in George Balanchine’s Apollo, the first of the 4 ballets on the Body Beautiful program.