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Favorite Things: Whither Vibrancy? How Long Relevance?

Photo:  Francisco Moncion as the Angel of Death and Nicolas Magallanes as Orpheus in a studio portrait by George Platt Lynes based on Balanchine's Orpheus (1950). Used with permission.

At the time of this writing the New York City Ballet remains a company without an artistic director and continues to be overseen by an interim artistic team. Five principal male dancers are gone. Robert Fairchild has moved on; Joaquin De Luz retired; and, Chase Finlay, caught up in a sex abuse scandal, resigned. Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, peripherally associated with Finlay’s problems, were dismissed last fall by the leadership team after having initially been suspended. Given such dramatic attrition in the ranks of leading male dancers one wonders whether the dismissal of Ramasar and Catazaro was possibly avoidable.

The state of the Company is always measured by the state of performance of the Balanchine repertory. The New York City Ballet is currently suffering from a serious deficit in experienced and unique male dancers who excel in it. Yes, there are very good dancers and partners, but they do not provide the excitement to inspire the Company’s stellar roster of ballerinas (Ashley Bouder, Megan Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, Maria Korowski, Lauren Lovett, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, and Teresa Reichlen). One younger dancer who rose from the ranks last spring, Joseph Gordon, has a solid technique and a poetic atmosphere but still needs time to develop. The male dancers of star quality who assure the vitality of the Balanchine repertory have either bowed out or been forced out: the ballerinas appear stranded in an empty dialogue.

Can this problem be attributed to a lack of artistic direction? An important element of the artistic director’s job description is to “[E]nsure the future of the Balanchine and Robbins repertory; preserve and protect the legacy while keeping it fresh, vibrant, and relevant.”[1] The double mandate —to preserve the works of Balanchine and Robbins while also maintaining their vibrancy and relevance – does depend on the maintenance of stellar dancers, but not only on this. The word relevance pops out. Is there any work in this repertoire whose relevance is potentially compromised? If so, might this be the fault of the work itself? Or, does it come down to the necessity for work-specific coaching to refine the needed style of performance? That is, does it come down to the vision of an artistic director?

The most potentially dated ballet of Balanchine’s repertory at this moment is Orpheus. It is programed this season between two other ballets Balanchine made with Stravinsky: Apollo and Agon. I want to write as the advocate of Orpheus and ask why it is not being conveyed convincingly today rather than assuming it cannot be.

This question in itself has something of a history. At its premiere in 1948, Orpheus was hailed as both an unusual work for Balanchine and a major work of twentieth-century dance. Balanchine may have been trying to devise an equivalent of his own to Martha Graham’s Greek myth works of the same period. This only underlines the extent of Balanchine’s modernism. He commissioned Graham’s collaborator sculptor Isamu Noguchi to design the set, costumes, and properties.[2] Dance critic John Martin noted at the premiere that Orpheus was “eminently of the theatre – the true lyric theatre where action is translated into aesthetic significance.”[3] I take Martin to mean that in “true lyric theatre” dramatic action becomes ritualized and thus stepped up to the aesthetic level of dance. Here, Martin echoes T. S. Eliot who felt that the future of drama lay in verse drama: “If there is a future for drama, and particularly for poetic drama, will it not be in the direction indicated by ballet?”[4]

By all accounts, the original cast – Nicholas Magallanes as Orpheus and Francisco Moncion as the Angel of Death – had a special affinity for this unusual work created by Balanchine directly for and on their bodies. In 1979, Clive Barnes wrote: “Magallanes offered Orpheus as if were an autobiographical lyric poem. And no amount of calculated movement can replace that vital central image that came so naturally to Magallanes. This is a ballet that should probably be left to marinate in memories and history books . . . .”[5] I am grateful for Barnes’s perspective but do not agree that we cannot to a large degree recover this autobiographical perspective. After all, ballet is theatre! And, there is a film to study. Yet, we will need great ballet directors, directors who understand the aesthetics of ballet history.

Maria Tallchief originated the role of Eurydice, but this role is limited to one pas de deux with Orpheus. In the three performances I saw—Gonzalo Garcia with Sterling Hyltin on January 22nd and February 1st; Teresa Reichlen with Ask La Cour on January 26th—the subtleties and motivations of focus and movement seen in the film do not appear to have been studied. The through-line of Orpheus, however, is the extended male duet and the work seems to live or die on how the choreography for the two male leads is performed. Even the most superficial glance at the 1957 film shot in Montreal with Magallanes, Moncion, and Violette Verdy indicates what is amiss with the performances now on offer.[6] This film—a gift to the rehearsal process—may not have been tapped in the most productive way. The intense relationship in the male duet and their movement dynamics in relation to the music could be mutually supporting and help to recreate the narrative’s legibility, its “aesthetic significance,” in Martin’s terms.

The Angel of Death appears as Orpheus mourns the loss of Eurydice and this is followed by their voyage as Dante and Vergil into hell to find her. Anna Kisselgoff wrote of this duet as depicting a “sensual relationship,” and this may have had something to do with the nude photographs of the male leads taken by George Platt Lynes in 1950. Does Orpheus demand not only a distinctive gestural plastique—neither acting nor dancing conventionally speaking—but also a homoerotic subtext? Any relation between Orpheus and the Angel is wholly absent from current performances. At a time when young choreographers at NYCB are attempting to reexamine gender roles in ballet choreography, why has this not been noticed? Would this not be a way to ensure the continued relevance of Orpheus?

The fact that Orpheus is barely legible to its audience today is not a new occurrence. Of the 1979 revival, with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the lead supported by Moncion and Kay Mazzo, Kisselgoff said the ballet was “beyond the reach of both its performers and its audience . . . .”[7] She formulated the challenge of the work as follows: “This is not acting in the conventional sense, nor is it step by step dancing. Mr. Balanchine has turned to a flow of movement with abstracted gesture that he has not really used elsewhere.” This Orpheus was also “dressed” in 1940s psychological symbolism through Noguchi's imposing sets, costumes, and properties. As Kisselgoff put it so perceptively: “At its least successful, Orpheus has appeared sadly dated. That is, in poor production and performance Orpheus may not work at all, trapped in a symbolism and style of movement its dancers can no longer convey.”[8] These are the very same problems we encounter today, forty years later.

Ballet is always historical in the present moment. It has to do with what T. S. Eliot called “permanent form.” “The ballet is valuable,” wrote Eliot, “because it has, unconsciously, concerned itself with a permanent form.” Eliot attributed this form to “a tradition, a training, an akesis.”[9] But, in our time, it hinges not only on training but also on the historical sensibilities of the dancer. Although the twentieth-century theory of ballet neoclassicism is based in part on the idea of the sacramental aspect of ballet technique, form cannot be permanent if it is not reanimated—essentially reinvented—across historical times. This is an essential role of the artistic director, who must know how to do this or know who knows how to do it. And, in Orpheus, Balanchine was not following neoclassical form but venturing in a new direction. In order to preserve the relevance of his work, it is important that the New York City Ballet not assume all his ballets are to be performed as neoclassical ballets. It is time to look at Balanchine and the different facets of his work historically.

In other words, unlike Apollo, which Balanchine updated in 1979 just as the Orpheus revival was failing, Orpheus could not reasonably undergo a similar surgery.[10] Balanchine removed the narrative frame of Apollo so that the entire ballet appeared more abstract. Orpheus is for better or for worse an historical work: it will never look as if it were choreographed yesterday. This may be, as Barnes thinks, because no one can replicate the “perfect” performance, but I think it is more likely because it is steeped in a visual context that is characteristic of the 1940s; the costumes are hard to relate to today, the choreography for the chorus in hell and for the Bacchantes attacking Orpheus does not even seem to have been done by Balanchine, but instead looks like an opera set piece. The only way to assure the vitality and relevance of Orpheus is to take on its historicity—good, bad, or indifferent—as a creative challenge: to perform it as an historical ballet that captures our interest on its own terms. To do so will demand careful study of how to read the film and other such important documents in which we rediscover the characterizations of Magallanes, Moncion, and Tallchief (through Verdy) as well as the original choreography and the way Balanchine coached it, along with the nuances of the duet with Eurydice. Orpheus is neither about bravura technical display nor an “abstract” neoclassical ballet. Ideally, an artistic director should know how to make performers understand this, and even excel at doing it. For, another way to ensure vitality and relevance is to cultivate an historical sensibility. 

Again, one way to keep vitality and relevance, then, is to accept the challenge of the historical qualities of certain works and study how to articulate them today. This is somewhat different from assuming they are all timeless masterpieces. Even timeless masterpieces may one day come to look historical. The challenge is to make them freshly historical, to inject into the present the relevance of history to the present. Such an approach would up the ante at multiple levels: for the dancers, and for the audience. Needless to say, bringing back past dancers skilled in certain roles—something Peter Martins opposed—should best continue and even become policy.

A case in point is Arthur Mitchell’s recent coaching of Maria Korowski in Agon. On opening night (January 21st) Korowski told the audience the story of her inspiring session with Mitchell shortly before his death last year. She said it changed her performance. And, indeed, although she has excelled in this role for some time, her performance that evening was fuller and even more intriguing than ever. In particular, both dancers in the duet when separated in space opened up a different private space of inner monologue, however fleeting. The sense of a psychological meaning has often struck me in certain Stravinsky pieces; often Balanchine’s apparent formalism leads to a figuration of a relationship that suggests a narrative reading. There is nothing clichéd about such psychological nuance: it is generally highly dramatic, in the best sense, and most experimental in its questioning of relationships. Agon is an example of a Balanchine work in the repertoire that is superbly rehearsed and which remains vital and of our time. Miriam Miller made a brilliant debut in the pas de deux on January 26th; also, in this performance, the Coda with Peter Walker, Sara Adams, and Lidia Wellington was most happily idiosyncratic; and Emilie Gerrity provided a sublime branle gai.

Taylor Stanley debuted in Apollo (January 22nd) after much fanfare in the New York Times about his groundbreaking presence in the role as an African-American. He is certainly up to the task and has only to grow into the role. The first performance was at moments tentative, but also at moments striking. By his third performance (February 1st) Stanley must have felt he had permission to take the role in his own direction. He was not afraid to show the use of weight and relationship to the floor that is one of the hallmarks of modern dance (possibly fostered by his study of Gaga technique in Tel Aviv recently). This is exactly what Apollo so desperately needs. He brought the house down.

Photo: Taylor Stanley in George Balanchine's Apollo (photo by Erin Baiano).

Stanley has the ability to bring out and show us, as it were, the most modernist aspects of the choreography. In other words, he is able to restore the baroque qualities of Balanchine’s conception of neoclassicism, its potentially critical side. In the turned-in bourrées on the heel, for example, Stanley’s commitment to the step's transgressive quality was clear as he moved away from the Muses to the stool downstage on a diagonal. He seemed to extend the path to underline its strangeness. Stanley exerted this effect on his partners as well, especially in the final moments of the ballet, where the three women are seated with their pointes converging in the air: Stanley touches the pointes with the flat of his hand, but in an intensely incantatory way. From that moment on, the way the women rose and peeled off suggested a plastique that made the choreography look fresh again. To make old works look fresh, the dancers must reassert the modernist daring of these works rather than smother them in classicism. But, this surely demands coaching, plus a lot of rehearsal time. At its premiere, Apollo was received as skeptical classicism and part of a questioning of classicism itself in ballet.[11] A production of Balanchine’s Le Bal (1929) in collaboration with Georgio de Chirico would also help underline this important side of Apollo. Of course, Apollo has evolved at the New York City Ballet only since 1951. The question is what will be the next steps in its evolution?

Who ever said that the character Apollo in the ballet Apollo is supposed to be blond, let alone white? Serge Lifar originally danced the role in 1928: He came across as a melodramatic Slav escorted by Russian ghosts in the lurid atmosphere of a “crime of love,” according to Jean Cocteau. Cocteau also reminded us that Greek statuary was not white, but painted in many colors. This was the interwar ambiance in which Balanchine created Apollo. He did make changes in 1979, which made the work appear more neoclassical in the sense we now understand that term. Do we need to find a middle ground here between a more experimental approach, that would be closer to the original, and a more conventional approach, that has come to be taken for the original? The point is that Balanchine in his most experimental works was a modernist, but this too tends to get lost in the way his works are performed. Even in his tributes to the Russian imperial ballet such as Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (formerly Ballet Imperial) there is significant syntactic modification and streamlining of classical conventions as well as constant citation of ballet history. These tributes to the classical past are themselves modernized. The same is true of Serenade except that in it one can also perceive the influence of Antony Tudor. Here again, as with Orpheus, dancers need to perform this work with historical consciousness, and of course this cannot be done without direction, coaching, and the time that these demand.

Here we return to the question of how to achieve preservation, vibrancy, and relevance. How should this be done? I suggest that the modernism of these works needs to be rediscovered, the general tendency to perform them as merely so many steps in a contemporary ballet needs to be rejected. Even a work as established in the repertory as is Apollo needs a historical facelift. That is, at this time it needs to become more, not less, historical.

Click here to watch the duet between Orpheus and Eurydice, from Balanchine’s Orpheus.

MARK FRANKO is a Guggenheim Fellow writing a book on neoclassical dance in France. He is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Dance at Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University. Choreographing Discourses: A Mark Franko Reader has just appeared from Routledge.




[2] As far as I know, Graham never asked Noguchi to design costumes, preferring to do it herself. The costumes for Orpheus are a major stumbling block. The circular appliqués on the women’s bodies are too large; the long tassle on the Angel’s head is an impediment (if one looks at the film, Moncion lets it fall on his shoulder rather than his forehead).

[3] John Martin, “Stravinsky Work in World Premiere”, New York Times (April 29, 1948).

[4] T.S. Eliot, “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” in Selected Essays 1917- 1932 (first published 1932; London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 46.

[5] Clive Barnes, “Baryshnikov revives Orpheus for the City,” New York Post (February 5, 1979).

[6] Balanchine, New York City Ballet in Montreal, volume 1. The film was telecast in 1960.

[7] “Today, ‘Orpheus’ appears dated in the sense that it proclaims its own time of composition.” Anna Kisselgoff, “City Ballet: ‘Orpheus’”, The New York Times (June 10, 1980).

[8] Anna Kisselgofff, “Why Do Some Ballets Seem Dated?” in The New York Times (June 15. 1980).

[9] T.S. Eliot, “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” in Selected Essays 1917- 1932 (first published 1932; London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 47. A similar idea was expressed at the New York City Ballet by the dancers when they made a public announcement on the moral honor of dancers at the start of the fall 2018 season.

[10] Susan Jones, “Balanchine’s Apollo,” in Literature, Modernism, and Dance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 63-69.

[11] Juliet Bellow brings up this term a propos of the work of the painter Georgio de Chirico who collaborated with Balanchine on Le Bal (1929). See her, Modernism on Stage. The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde (New York & London: Routledge, 2016), 213.


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