#Throwback Thursday: Apollo

This week's #ThrowbackThursday features an early Balanchine ballet, Apollo.

NYCB, with Suzanne Farrell

Known variously as Apollo or Apollon Musagete ('Apollo, Leader of the Muses'), the neoclassical ballet has a score and libretto by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by George Balanchine, who was only 24 years old at the time of its creation in 1928. Scenery and costumes were originally by Andre Bauchant, with new costumes by Coco Chanel in 1929.

Serge Lifar, the original Apollo

The American patron of the arts, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, commissioned the ballet in 1927 for a festival of contemporary music to be held in 1928 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Stravinsky was paid $1000 for composing piece, which was to be for six dancers and run for no more than half an hour; otherwise he was allowed to choose his subject. Having been thinking of writing a ballet inspired by early Greek mythology for some time, Stravinsky chose Apollo and the Muses. He reduced the number of Muses from the original nine to three: Terpsichore, representing song and dance, Calliope, representing rhythm and poetry, and Polyhymnia, representing mime. Stravinsky began work on July 16 1927 and finished January 9 1928. The resulting composition is for a string orchestra of 34 musicians, and took its inspiration from 17th and 18th century French court music, particularly that of Lully.

Ballets Russes original cast, 1928

There were in fact two versions of Apollo. The very first, commissioned especially for the Washington festival, was choreographed by Adolph Bolm. This version premiered April 27 1928, with Bolm as Apollo. However, he found it difficult to cast the Muses in a country which at that time had no available source of classically trained dancers. Finally, he settled on Ruth Page, Berenice Holmes, and Elise Reiman. Stravinsky took little interest in this incarnation of the ballet, and Bolm's choreography was quickly forgotten.

'Apollo' end scene

But Stravinsky had reserved the European rights to the score for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, whose production opened at the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris on June 12 1928. The choreographer was of course Balanchine; Stravinsky himself conducted the premiere.

Serge Lifar as Apollo and Alexandra Danilova as Terpsichore, Ballets Russes, 1928

Balanchine's choreography was, as Stravinsky had wished, essentially classical; the composer called it a ballet blanc. Indeed, the costumes were traditional white, even after Chanel replaced them; Apollo had a white toga and the Muses wore tutus. Balanchine later commented that he had heard Stravinsky's score and all he could see was a bright white. The absence of any conflict in the libretto or any sudden changes of tempo in the music was mirrored by the dancers' costumes and the lack of scenery on stage. It made quite the contrast to Stravinsky's earlier scores: the dramatic Firebird, the dark Petrushka, or the otherworldly and groundbreaking The Rite of Spring. Nevertheless, Balanchine's choreography still featured elements of his neoclassical style, particularly in the hand and arm movements.

Serge Lifar and Alexandra Danilova, 'Apollo', 1928

The ballet began with the birth of Apollo, followed by his meeting with the three Muses, Terpsichore, Calliope, and Polyhymnia, before he ascended as a god to Mount Parnassus. The original cast included Serge Lifar as Apollo, Alice Nikitina as Terpsichore (a role which she alternated with Alexandra Danilova), Lubov Tchernicheva as Calliope, and Felia Doubrovska as Polyhymnia. The ballet was a success.

Heather Watts and Mikhail Baryshnikov, 'Apollo', 1979

There were many later revivals. For the 1979 production starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, Balanchine omitted Apollo's first variation and re-choreographed the ballet's ending, so that instead of ascending to Mount Parnassus, there was repetition of an earlier tableau with the Muses posing around Apollo. However, in the 1980 staging for the New York City Ballet, Balanchine restored Apollo's first variation. The ballet at premiered at NYCB in 1951, at American Ballet Theatre in 1943, and at the Royal Ballet in 1966. It is still often performed today.

NYCB, with Chase Finlay and Sterling Hyltin

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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