Broadwayworld Dance Review: Balanchine/Stravinsky at New York City Ballet, January 24, 2019.
When the curtain fell on the revival of Orpheus, originally choreographed in 1948 as a Ballet Society presentation at New York City Center, it seemed that half the audience was sleeping, while the other half couldn't wait to get on their cell phones. And this for the ballet that inspired Morton Baum, then City Center's Chairman of the Executive Committee, to invite the company to take up residence at City Center, which was to become its home for the next 15 years.
Orpheus has seldom been revived since the company moved to the New York State Theater (now the Koch). I asked a dance friend of mine who was with the company from 1954-1961, and whose knowledge of the company is so encyclopedic, what it was about Orpheus that drew audiences to it. After all, it was one of their greatest artistic and commercial successes in those years. In her own words-and this is one of the smartest people I know.
"Orpheus certainly was performed at City Center in my day, and was appreciated. Maybe it was Maria Tallchief's Eurydice, Magallanes's Orpheus, Moncion's Dark Angel, Herbert Bliss's Apollo, and Tanny LeClercq's Bacchante that captivated the audience along with the effective use of the silk curtain. Balanchine was obsessed with its billowing, and the ballet's lighting. I've been surprised to read the many reviews that use 'silly' to describe the Furies and Bacchantes. Either the ballet is miscast; the curtain and lighting poorly used, or Orpheus really is dated. I always thought it quite magical."
I spoke to Melissa Hayden years ago, and she said the very same thing. In fact, she was stunned at how poorly it was performed. The magic just wasn't there-the dancers didn't know what they were doing. After all, this had been a benchmark in the history of New York City Ballet. What was going on?
I saw Orpheus at the Koch during another revival years ago and did not like it. However, watching it on DVD over Christmas week with a friend, an ex-dancer and now a theologian, who could explain many aspects of the dance that I never understood before, made a deep impression on me. All of a sudden, the work made sense. Perhaps not some of the ensemble choreography-it seemed extraneous-- but its reason for having once been a mainstay of the Balanchine repertory, and why it mattered so much to him.
The problems? To be short-the stage. The Koch is way too large for a ballet that almost screams out for a black box stage. City Center, with its jutting balcony, no doubt brought the audience right into the action. Just reading some of its history, I've found that the ballet was designed for a long and narrow stage, causing a two dimensional frieze like effect. The two original men, Francisco Moncion and Nicholas Magallanes, were not virtuoso dancers, but they were stark theatrical presences. Even the pyrotechnical Maria Tallchief was not allowed to dominate. As a dance piece, combining the ritual, the darkness and the lucidity of Greek legend, I imagine it must have been stunning.
So what went wrong with this revival? Probably the same thing that struck down the others. No one knew how to approach it. Has the company ever thought of presenting it in another venue? I know I was sitting back in Row Q, and I felt distinctly left out of everything transpiring on the stage. I could just not get into the action. And judging by what the others were saying, neither could they. Is it time to retire Orpheus for good?
I hope not. There are so many reasons to keep it: historical importance, the Stravinsky music. Maybe there should be a complete overhaul of the costumes and scenery? This will definitely be up to the company. Judging by the performances that night, Gonzalo Garcia as Orpheus, Peter Walker as the Dark Angel, Sterling Hyltin as Eurydice, and Unity Phelan as the Leader of the Bacchantes, no one seemed to know which course to take for the performance. Was it more dramatic, shall we dance more? Are we resigned to going through the motions?
Or is it just beyond everyone right now?
I've been harping on Orpheus, for the pièce de résistance of the evening was Taylor Stanley making his debut in Apollo. This is a mighty role for any dancer to undertake, the modest god who moves from stripling to majestic overlord. Reviews have been swirling, since Stanley is an absolutely wonderful dancer in certain roles, and he has never undertaken a challenge such as this.
So how did he do?
Quite well, if I may say so. Exceptionally well, really well. But I have one reservation, which is the majesty and pomp of the role, not so literally, but more inherently.
Ever since Peter Martins assumed the role over 40 years ago, we have grown accustomed to the big, blond Nordic dancer who easily carries the world on his shoulders. That is not Stanley. He is not that tall, he is nicely muscular, he is catlike-you can envision him jumping from one shelf to another-he is regal but not pompous, friendly, but not lordly, at times a bit confused, yet always learning on the job, as it were.
There is still more work to be done, and I think he still needs a few more appearances to make the role his own. As it stands right now, he is still the prince. He doesn't command as of yet, he's faltering, he doesn't dominate the muses, he's on their level. Gods can come down from Mt. Olympus to learn, but when they return they had better know more than when they first descended. Give it some more time, and I think that Mr. Stanley will be at the forefront of Apollos for the 21st century.
Oh, and did I forget to say that Mr. Stanley is a bi-racial man.
Or some other things which reviewers have mentioned.
Tiler Peck was very expressive, yet she wore her part lightly, never overpowering Mr. Stanley, as Terpsichore, the muse of dance. Who else would be as interesting to Balanchine? Their pas de deux, beginning somewhat tentatively, growing in respect and admiration, was not one of love, rather a partnership of artistic endeavors. How often does one say that of a pas de deux?
In this light, we can look at Stravinsky and Balanchine in the same way.
Mention must also go to Brittany Pollock as Polyhymnia, the Muse of mime; and Indiana Woodward as Calliope, the Muse of poetry. While both did not leave as potent a mark on Apollo, they danced with eloquence and spirit.
Still, it was Mr. Stanley's evening. Where will his Apollo go?
The evening closed with the 1957 Agon, here performed by Maria Kowrowski and Tyler Angle in the famous pas de deux, still to this day an exercise in dexterity, precision, wit and almost mathematical calculation. Kowrowski has been performing this part for a number of years, yet her stamina and flexibility are still great assets. Tyler Angle, as always, is a stalwart partner, and the final chord as they both fall on each other's shoulders in their agon (or battle), is quite an achievement in the test of physical possibilities--or should I say impossibilities?
Anthony Huxley, Unity Phelan and Lydia Wellington in the first pas de trois were limber and eager to display their bodies in action, while Megan LeCrone, Devin Alberda and Daniel Applebaum were off the mark in the second pas de trois. When Ms. LeCrone was tossed from Mr. Applebaum to Mr. Alberda's shoulder, he looked unsteady. That is not the place to look unsteady-rather, you want to look as solid as a rock.
An interesting evening. You don't get many of those!