The two works on the current PNB program are a study in contrasts: subtlety versus bombast, lyricism versus athleticism, purity versus bawdiness, Apollonian versus Dionysian, Balanchine versus Stowell.
The two ballets are George Balanchine’s pristine Apollo (the leading words in the list above refer to it) and Kent Stowell’s exuberant Carmina Burana. Although both are crowd-pleasers, Apollo is in a class by itself for its capacity to stun viewers more than 84 years after its creation. It is Balanchine’s oldest surviving work and remains a precious gift to ballet dancers and ballet goers the world over.
The Apollo we see today at PNB is not precisely the same as the one Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered in Paris in 1928. Balanchine was famous for tinkering with his ballets and over the years he changed Apollo several times. The version that PNB performed until this season was the one that former PNB Co-Artistic Director Francia Russell danced at New York City Ballet in the 1950’s. Now, with Peter Boal at the helm, the company has introduced Balanchine’s final version, altered in 1979, and the one that Boal danced at City Ballet. Gone is the opening scene of Apollo’s birth and the staircase that he ascends to Mount Parnassus in the finale. What hasn’t changed is the essence of this exquisite ballet with its staggered arabesques and sculptural elegance.
From today’s vantage point it’s hard to believe that it took 30 years for Apollo to gain wide audience appeal, but it’s important to remember how groundbreaking Balanchine’s neoclassical style was in the 1920s. At that time, ballet consisted of the classical repertoire —Giselle, Les Sylphides, Swan Lake and other works in the same vein.
With his Ballets Russes, Diaghilev took dance in a different direction, fostering a generation of young dancers and choreographers who, in their effort to make ballet modern, often strayed far from their classical roots. Michel Fokine’s Firebird, Vaslav Nijinksy’s The Rite of Spring, and Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces were grounded in a different aesthetic, but with Apollo Balanchine reclaimed the classical tradition.
In doing so, he retained the grace and beauty of classical ballet but turned it on its head with jazzy hip action, flexed hands and feet, squatting swivels, and unusual lifts. With Apollo, he also began an extraordinary 50-year collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, the fruits of which make up a significant part of the Balanchine canon. Stravinsky recognized immediately that in Balanchine he had found an artist who was able to expand the power of his refined score for Apollo; for his part Balanchine said that Apollo was “the turning point of my life.”
The version of Apollo PNB now performs loses much of the narrative of the infant Apollo growing into a creative artist inspired by three of the muses, Terpsichore, Calliope, and Polyhymnia. My personal preference is for the pre-1979 Apollo with its stronger storyline, but any version is worth seeing for its intricate steps and gorgeous tableaux.
On opening night, Batkhurel Bold, usually an emotionally restrained powerhouse, brought a surprising gentleness and fluidity to Apollo’s solo variations and pas de deux. His duet with Sarah Ricard Orza as Terpsichore was particularly touching as he wove her around him or lifted her outstretched body along his back.
Orza is one of PNB’s most distinctive ballerinas and infuses every role she dances with genuine feeling. With her well-shaped body, flawless technique, and intense musicality, Orza seems born to dance Apollo. Maria Chapman as Calliope and Lesley Rausch as Polyhymnia easily managed their challenging solo variations and floated across the stage like the classical muses they were portraying.
Randall Chiarelli’s magical lighting brought depth and variety to what was essentially a bare stage. Apart from a few simple props, there was nothing but Chiarelli’s lighting to convey the rarefied world of the Greek gods. By bathing the stage in various hues of blue, Chiarelli created an environment that was by turns earth-bound and celestial.
Chiarelli’s lighting — along with scenic designer Ming Cho Lee’s enormous golden wheel of fortune looming menacingly over the stage (a reference to the opening “O Fortuna” section) — was also a crucial part of the visual impact of Carmina Burana. As befits Carl Orff’s monumental score, this is a sweeping work, set to the music of 24 medieval poems. Replete with drinking songs and riotous excess, the songs are perfect examples of the qualities the Greeks associated with Dionysus – the exact opposite of the order and harmony they attributed to Apollo.
Stowell’s Carmina Burana premiered at PNB in 1993 and remains his most expansive and memorable work. He wisely chose to follow the internal logic of the music rather than the story lines expressed in the libretto. From the lusty “In Taberna” section to the elegant adagio in “Cour d’Amour,” Stowell has captured the spirit of the songs and created choreography that showcases the versatility of PNB’s talented dancers.
The current production of Carmina Burana is the strongest PNB has ever presented of this work thanks to the increasing strength of the PNB corps. The company has always had impressive principals, but over the years dancers at the ranks of soloist and corps, especially among the men, have become stronger and stronger.
Although there are solo roles in Carmina, this is largely an ensemble ballet and the entire company rose to its physical demands on opening night. Soloists Benjamin Griffiths and James Moore and corps member Eric Hipolito offered especially dynamic performances and Carrie Imler threw herself full-bore into the role of lusty wench
Lucien Postlewaite was luminous in the "Cour d'Amour" adagio, as he is in every role he performs. Even on a crowded stage his charisma, elegance and technical skill stand out. He will be sorely missed when he leaves PNB at the end of this season.
Seattle Choral Company’s singers have lovely voices but their words were mushy, a minor problem given that the libretto is in Latin and German. Soprano Christina Siemens and tenor Marcus Shelton sang with great feeling and a full, rich sound, but baritone Michael Anthony McGee’s lighter voice was lost in the towering McCaw Hall.
The PNB orchestra under Emil de Cou moved seamlessly from the restrained Stravinsky score of Apollo to Orff’s extravagant instrumentals and, as usual, received its own well-deserved recognition from the audience.
If you go: Pacific Northwest Ballet, Apollo and Carmina Burana, through April 22 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets $28-168 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online at pnb.org.
NOTE: Lucien Postlewaite’s final regular season performances will be this weekend when he dances the title role in Apollo on Thursday and Saturday evenings and the “Cour d’Amour” pas de deux Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. There will be a special farewell performance for Postlewaite in June.
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