Who was George Balanchine’s greatest muse? If her name is on the tip of your tongue, and you think that she must be a famous ballerina, think again. From their first collaboration in early in the 1920s, composer Igor Stravinsky inspired and challenged Balanchine with his music, starting in France and then expanding into different countries. New York City Ballet presents the fruits of Balanchine and Stravinsky’s legendary partnership in their Fall 2012 opening program.

Wendy Whelan and Ask la Cour in Orpheus © Paul Kolnik
Wendy Whelan and Ask la Cour in Orpheus
© Paul Kolnik

Apollo is a fitting opening act – it was one of the first ballets these two men created and premièred, in 1928. Audiences around the world can thank Serge Diaghilev for bringing Balanchine and Stravinsky together, working for his Ballets Russes. In the title role here, Robert Fairchild embodied the mythic deity with grace and strength. He extended through the long lines of Balanchine’s choreography to fill the music, and found plenty of time at the height of each jump in the air. After all, time is irrelevant when you’re immortal.

Apollo’s muses, danced by Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, and Ana Sophia Scheller, add another dimension to the piece portraying various arts. Shoulder to shoulder in unison they look like an ancient picture come to life. Whether reaching for Apollo with their tilted heads, or from the floor with extended legs, they help define his role as the leader. Apollo is also filled with a sense of light. Along with the visual lightness of colors and fabrics, movements radiate from a central point and carve elliptical arcs through the space. In one beautiful phrase Fairchild lifts Hyltin from penché arabesque, her back arching over his shoulder. Her legs trace a circle in the air, as he inverts her body moving at just the right speed for the audience to see her entire trajectory as well as the snapshot moment at the height of the lift.

The Greek mythology continued with Orpheus, which premièred in 1948. Following the original story, Orpheus (Ask la Cour) travels to the underworld in a desperate attempt to bring his beloved Eurydice (Wendy Whelan) back from the dead. Where Balanchine and Stravinsky explored classical themes in Apollo, they twisted and distorted the old ideas when producing Orpheus. Stravinsky’s score emphasizes Orpheus’ grief, and here Isamu Noguchi’s scenery and costumes presented a grotesque and disturbing vision of the underworld to match.

During the pair’s ascent to the land of the living, Orpheus isn’t allowed to see Eurydice. Balanchine’s modern solution to this obstacle generated a very unusual duet. La Cour partners Whelan without looking at her, through lifts and turns, connections and releases. But what Orpheus lacks in visual contact, Eurydice makes up for; Whelan’s focus on la Cour is unwavering. Together, Balanchine and Stravinsky achieved something rarely done in classical ballet. They break the barrier between performer and audience, thrusting them into the protagonist’s mind. Unfortunately, we make Orpheus’ acquaintance at the depths of his despair.

The final piece, Agon, stands apart as the only abstract ballet in the program. Simple leotards and tights and a clean stage, the rigid spacing appears even more stark after the chaos and emotion of Orpheus. Balanchine is careful not to overwhelm the viewer, despite having as many as 12 dancers on stage at once. To make it work, he has some rules, for example, the more people, the more unison movement. The more complex the movement, the fewer people move at once. In this way stillness becomes an important element in the piece, and although at times Agon may seem too simple, Balanchine’s restraint results in a minimal, beautiful ballet.

Balanchine and Stravinsky’s works are classics today, due in part to the innovative environment in which they were created. Each artist pushed himself and his partner to confront traditions and take risks in the name of art. Now, New York City Ballet gives audiences a glimpse into the heart of one of ballet’s most enduring relationships.