Don't look back. Joseph Gordon as Orpheus, Ashley Laracey as Eurydice, October 2023. Photo by Erin Baiano.
From a what-if point of view in the present, Martin's comments may appear rather quixotic. How sustainable a medium, one wonders, could classical dance have seemed at the time? Yes, touring offshoots of the glamorous Ballets Russes were crisscrossing the New World north and south of the Equator, and American Ballet Theatre, coming up on its tenth birthday, seemed to be here to stay for a while. But surely the future lay with barefoot rule-breakers like Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham? Yes and no. The modern-dance icons came and went, inspiring future mavericks, but achieving no permanent institutional presence. Whereas City Ballet...
On its 75th birthday, City Ballet duplicated the inaugural program for one night only at its custom-built home in Lincoln Center, known to Balanchine as the New York State Theater. In 2008, the house was renamed in honor of the philanthropist David H. Koch, a decision that stuck in the craw of old-school balletomanes of strong convictions and for some still does.
I was on duty elsewhere on the birthday, but the birthday ballets figured on other bills, as well. Of the three, the one that stands out as rarity or even a white elephant is Orpheus (1948). It's worth considering why.
At one level, Orpheus looks like a companion piece to Apollo (1928), which was created on another continent for the Ballets Russes. There are clear cross-references between the two Stravinsky scores, the choreographic styles are cut from comparable cloth, and both pieces place great importance on props (a lute for Apollo, a lyre for Orpheus). Yet, while Apollo feels timeless, Orpheus looks like a period piece, trapped in in the amber of its biomorphic décor by Isamu Noguchi.
Noguchi's sculptural objects—the lyre, a mask that doubles as a blindfold, the poet's severed head, spilling song in death—recall the antique-modern fusions of Art Deco. Strange and beautiful, they serve the narrative. The costumes are something else. Blood-red tubing coils around the protagonist's earth-brown unitard from collarbone across the chest around the lower back and around one thigh, ending at the tibiofemural joint, distorting his line. Pluto, god of the underworld, advances fully encased in a moundlike monolith, "speaking" through a sea star. Have I mentioned the Nature Spirits in their asteroid belts of dead twigs?
The cast is enormous, yet the total impression is hieratic, glacially slow. The dance element is not uppermost, but it is there. Mourning the dead Eurydice, Orpheus has a vibrant solo with his lyre, reminiscent in style if not in mood of the young Apollo's solo of discovery with his lute.
The duet for Orpheus interlocked with the Dark Angel bound for the underworld is hypnotic, not least for the angel's resemblance to his female avatar in Serenade (as dance historians have shown, both ballets quote Canova's celebrated marble Cupid and Psyche). There's a painful urgency to the brief duet with Eurydice, and it ends bluntly. One (forced) backward glance from Orpheus, and she melts beneath the veil separating the world of the living from the world of the dead.
A Satyr and later the murderous Bacchantes and their frenzied leader inject some welcome pyrotechnics. The cast on October 10, when I attended, was the same as at the anniversary performance the following night: Joseph Gordon (Orpheus), Peter Walker (Dark Angel), Ashley Laracey (Eurydice), Kennard Henson (Satyr), Emily Kitka (leader of the Bacchantes). As noted, Orpheus felt like a period piece, muted in its impact.
Mind you, Apollo might feel like a period piece today, too, if Balanchine had not stripped away the Greekish trappings from its Ballets Russes days (after the premiere, Coco Chanel supplied new costumes). And it wasn't only décor Balanchine discarded. The whole prologue showing Apollo's birth from the womb of Leto and his emergence from bands of swaddling clothes went by the board, as well. Having followed Apollo since my teens, I remember that scene vividly. I think I last saw it in 1974, in Rudolf Nureyev's first of many brief Broadway seasons. On reflection, I think we're better off without it. But Orpheus is what it is, unalterable.