On the other hand, it needs an Apollo—not just a very talented male dancer but one who convinces as the young god on his progress toward transcendence. And who looks like … a young god. First-cast Robert Fairchild is a handsome and very talented dancer, but he’s not yet, and may never be, a true Apollo, although he’s trying very hard—which may be part of the problem. His younger and less experienced and perhaps less talented colleague Chase Finlay is Apollo—the curtain goes up and there center-stage, holding his lute, is the god himself, before he takes a step. His body has filled out since he made his spectacular debut a few seasons ago, and his performance has too; he grips us throughout as he movingly grounds himself after his offstage birth and learns command. In no other role has he made a comparable impression, but then no other male Balanchine role is so exacting and so important. He—and we—were fortunate that his Terpsichore was Kowroski, whose grand manner combined with her natural modesty makes it clear why Apollo chooses her as his muse. First-cast Sterling Hyltin was just too lightweight; although she improves, she’ll never be a natural Terpsichore. In her cast, only Tiler Peck as Polyhymnia was up to the job. No one was helped by the lugubrious tempi—Apollo is lilting, not solemn.
Back in its youth—the late ’40s and early ’50s—Orpheus was a glory, resonant with meaning and feeling, its Graham-related narrative expressionism plus its Graham-like Noguchi sets and costumes making it look modern and challenging. To many people today it’s inscrutable and old-fashioned, at moments almost risible, its story and symbolism murky and dense in ways that audiences and dancers find perplexing. And yet: the score is ravishing, the Noguchi décor extraordinary and the tale of Orpheus descending into the underworld to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice, profoundly moving. And of course much of the choreography is astounding—the interaction of Orpheus and the Dark Angel, the climactic anguished duet with Eurydice. Orpheus is a central Balanchine ballet and can’t be ignored, so it’s good that City Ballet keeps reviving it, even with mixed results. The thing about Orpheus is that it may not be easy to live with but you can’t live without it.
As with Apollo, the second cast was considerably more effective than the first. For reasons beyond my comprehension, the first-cast Orpheus, tall, spindly Ask la Cour, was paired with the sawed-off Dark Angel of Amar Ramasar—in their grapplings they looked like Mutt and Jeff; it was hard to take them seriously. Nor was Wendy Whelan anything more than dutiful as Eurydice. (Luckily for me, I have Maria Tallchief, the original, implanted in my brain.) On the second night, Sébastien Marcovici was far more moving than la Cour as the doomed hero, while Jonathan Stafford, although physically too slight, had the intensity the Dark Angel demands. And Janie Taylor’s passionate urgency justified the calamitous action that leads to Eurydice’s return to hell and Orpheus’s destruction at the hands of the Bacchantes. These three principals made a strong case for this landmark creation that once was so powerful and now baffles so many.Perhaps we just need to see it more often—and appropriately cast.
As for the once-revolutionary Agon, after more than half a centuryits lessons and revelations have been so absorbed into the language of ballet that it now seems almost conventional. The company performs it smoothly—maybe too smoothly; a littlemoresense of ongoing discovery might restore some of the excitement that attended the birth of this masterpiece.