New York City Ballet’s 50th anniversary tribute to George Balanchine’s famous 1972 Stravinsky Festival continued with a Greek-themed triple bill of ApolloOrpheus and Agon, all three historically important works in the Balanchine canon.

Taylor Stanley with Tiler Peck, Brittany Pollack, and Indiana Woodward in Balanchine’s Apollo
© Erin Baiano

Apollo is Balanchine’s earliest work that has survived in the repertory. NYCB continues to perform the, for me, inferior abridged Apollo that cuts the birthing scene. Without that crucial scene, there’s less sense of a young god becoming more authoritative. Nonetheless, Apollo received a fine performance last night. In the title role, Taylor Stanley gave a very clean, elegant performance. There wasn’t the wildness that some dancers inject into the role, but his Apollo was cool and confident from the opening guitar solo. His trio of muses (Tiler Peck as Terpsichore, Brittany Pollack as Polyhymnia and Indiana Woodward as Calliope) followed Stanley’s lead and gave dignified, serious performances. The Apollo/Terpsichore pas de deux was flawlessly danced except for one shaky moment in the “swimming” lift. However, one missed the flirtatiousness and playfulness that other Apollo/Terpsichore duets have.

Sterling Hyltin and Joseph Gordon in George Balanchine’s Orpheus
© Erin Baiano

Orpheus created such a buzz at its creation in 1948 that Morton Baum invited Balanchine and his fledgling company to a permanent residence at New York City Center. Orpheus was also presented as one of the works in the newly-renamed New York City Ballet’s inaugural performance. Today, the ballet is feeling its age and is better known for the bizarre, intriguing Isami Noguchi costumes and design. The main problem with Orpheus is that, unlike other retellings of this timeless myth, this Balanchine/Stravinsky collaboration lacks heart. Orpheus loves and loses Eurydice and is torn apart by the Bacchantes, but we never care as deeply as we do in, for example, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice or the musical Hadestown.

The ballet is interesting chiefly for its modern dance accents. There is clearly some cross pollination from Martha Graham – not just the Noguchi designs, but also the mythical themes – and a lot of the choreography (like the stomping of the Furies, the torso contortions and the walking rocks) seems more Graham than Mr B.

Joseph Gordon was making his debut as Orpheus. He looks handsome and has beautiful classical turnout and line, but was also inexpressive. You never felt Orpheus’ desperation to rescue his beloved. Sterling Hyltin (filling in for Ashley Laracey who has Covid) made the most out of a tiny part – Eurydice has a brief, limb-wrapping pas de deux with Orpheus before being pulled back into the underworld (here symbolized by being pulled through a curtain). Andrew Scordato made little out of the meatiest part – the sinister Dark Angel. I’ve seen many dancers have way more fun with this.

Amar Ramasar and Unity Phelan in George Balanchine’s Agon
© Erin Baiano

Agon finished the evening and had the benefit of an almost brand-new cast. It is one of those ballets usually cast with the same people year after year (for years it was always Wendy Whelan, then it was always Maria Kowroski), so new blood was exciting. Unity Phelan made her debut in the central pas de deux, a bit shaky at times. One such moment was that step sequence where the woman drags the man who is lying on the floor. But one was impressed by the beautiful reach of her legs and the flexibility of her spine. Amar Ramasar reprised his classic portrayal – it will be hard to lose him at the end of the season.

In the Sarabande, Jovani Furlan made an incredible debut – he was musical, sharp, and witty. Emilie Gerrity made an equally strong debut in the Bransle Gay. She did treacherously difficult drop hand balances without a hitch and had a cool regality to her dancing that fit the ballet perfectly.

Agon is one work where time has not diluted its impact. The severe beauty of the geometric shapes Balanchine creates make it perhaps the greatest collaboration between Balanchine and Stravinsky. This new cast proves how different generations of dancers continue to find fresh ways to interpret this work.