New York City Ballet’s Greek Trilogy

Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar in Balanchine’s “Agon”, photo by Erin Baiano

New York City Ballet’s four-week fall season opened last week with a celebration of George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s remarkable collaboration. Not only did Wednesday’s program feature works that highlight their partnership, but it also formed a Greek trilogy.  Apollo and Orpheus are both mythical retellings, while Agon (the youngest of the three pieces) is a neoclassical, plotless work.  The ballets don’t have to be performed on the same program – they’re exquisite on their own – but they often are. In 1957, when Agon premiered at New York City Center following performances of Apollo and Orpheus, the crowd was ecstatic. Apparently, dance critic Arlene Croce said she didn’t sleep for a week.

On Wednesday night Agon’s brilliance was still evident. Stravinsky’s score is powerful, filled with fast-paced percussion and arresting string compositions. Stripped of décor and plot, Agon has three parts with eight women and four men dressed only in tights and leotards. The opening and closing feature four men circling their arms overhead, fingers spread, as they stride upstage heel to toe, their backs to the audience. It feels fresh every time I see it, as if cleansing the stage for what follows.  Next to Orpheus and Apollo, this ballet feels incredibly modern. There are off-balance turns, flexed feet, and in the pas de deux for Amar Ramasar and Maria Kowroski, juxtapositions that appear in other later Balanchine ballets. Perhaps the most remarkable and memorable moment occurs when Kowroski’s extended leg balances on Ramasar’s shoulder followed by a rotation that ends with her back arched, standing on point, facing away from him with her other leg still propped against his shoulder.  Later, he lays on the floor, balancing her 180-degree ponche.  Some formations looked sloppy, with a dancer here and there not in line with the others, but that hardly diminishes the power and depth of the ballet.

I hadn’t seen Orpheus in many years. In spite of its significance in the history of NYCB (after its 1948 premiere Ballet Society was invited to be the permanent ballet company of City Center with the new name New York City Ballet), the ballet is dated. As a plot-driven work with little actual dancing, the story of Orpheus and his struggle to rescue his wife Eurydice from Hades relies on dancers who are striking to watch even in stillness. Janie Taylor made the most of Eurydice’s brief appearance, while Sebastien Marcovici was a rather bland Orpheus. The sets are still stunning, and quite elaborate for such a short ballet, but the work is sleepy, especially when paired with the other two ballets on this program.

Chase Finlay in Balanchine’s “Apollo”, photo by Andrea Mohin

Despite its mythical story, Apollo is timeless.  Soloist Chase Finlay performed the title role on Wednesday with clarity and precision.  In his solos he demonstrated authority and assertiveness; in his partnering, more playfulness. Maria Kowroski’s Terpischore was soulful and grounded. Teresa Reichlen’s Polyhymnia was sprightly.  It amazes me that Balanchine choreographed this workin 1928, when he was just 24, and called the ballet “the turning point of my life…the score was a revelation.”  84 years later, it still is.

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