Will the Real Apollo Please Stand Up?

Lifar and Danilova in the original Apollon Musagete
The recent death of Alicia Alonso led me down the Youtube rabbit hole and I discovered, among other things, a Cuban version of Balanchine's seminal masterpiece Apollo. I am well aware of the various changes Balanchine made to Apollo in his lifetime from its premiere in 1927 to his death in 1983. The most drastic change was his last change -- he cut the birthing scene and the final ascent up the stairs to Mount Olympus.

Even if you keep in mind all the changes Balanchine made this Apollo was unlike any version I've ever seen, live or on video. A little background first: Alicia Alonso did dance Apollo at American Ballet Theatre. Edwin Denby's book mentions an Apollo with André Egelevsky, Alonso, Nora Kaye, and Barbara Fallis. When Alonso returned to Cuba to found the Cuban National Ballet, she staged an Apollo without the supervision of any NYCB principal or the Balanchine Trust. Presumably she was working from memory. It's this version that I found on Youtube.

Andre Egelevsky as Apollo
The Cuban Apollo is a shock to watch. The dancers are excellent -- Jorge Esquivel is Apollo, Aurora Bosh Terpischore, Mirta Pla Polyhymnia, and Loipa Araujo Callipe. It's not so much that the steps are drastically different but the decor and style seem alien to Balanchine's trademark neo-classicism. Gone are the simple white tunic dresses for the Muses and tights for Apollo -- here Apollo wears an antiquity-style skirt with strappy sandals and the muses curly wigs that look much more like the Coco Chanel designs of the original Apollon Musagète (see above) and the pictures of André Egelevsky (right). There is a facsimile of a mountain, the props the Muses use are much bigger and more ornate. When I first saw this I thought "this is if Apollo decided to go to a Halloween party." But that's probably my prejudice of seeing Apollo as a black and white ballet.

The biggest difference in choreography is the duet between Apollo and Terpischore. It starts at 18:34. Terpischore dances the entire pas de deux on pointe. Terpischore does none of the flat-footed dancing that I always thought was Apollo's iconic choreography.

Other differences are in accents. In later versions of Apollo there's a sense of the muses guiding Apollo. Mentoring him, one could say. In the Cuban version the Apollo is truly god-like and the muses treat him with reverence. One example is the famous clap after which Apollo rests his head in the muses' hands. It occurs at 26:00 here. Notice how gentle the clap is -- it's not at all like the loud, in-your-face clap American versions use.

Then there's differences of style. This Apollo is danced in a rather ornate style more akin to the naturalism of Fokine than to neoclassical Balanchine. The muses do not emphasize the jazzy swings of the hips in the coda. Apollo in the "soccer" solo does not do the soccer kicks with the knees slightly bent. The fancy port de bras of Apollo throughout the ballet is quite a shock too. Is this really how Balanchine taught Apollo to Egelevsky and Alonso?

Despite the anachronisms that give this rendition an odd look the hallmarks of Cuban training are evident here -- their skill at par terre dancing is unrivaled. For instance watch the ease at which the Polyhymnia does those pique turns into arabesque. She makes it seem like child's play. That is a step that I've seen so many otherwise capable ballerinas crash and burn. Those turns by Apollo too -- so much speed and power.

The next video evidence we have is from 1960.

d'Amboise as Apollo
This is much more the Apollo that American audiences are accustomed to. The ornate scenery had been removed in favor of a single staircase. Jacques d'Amboise was the god Balanchine chose for the 1957 NYCB company premiere of Apollo. Balanchine always insisted that Apollo was a demi-character role and that is how Jacques d'Amboise interprets the part. (Balanchine once dabbled with the idea of having the modern dance great Paul Taylor dance Apollo.)

This Apollo has little grace or beauty. Part of that is physiology -- d'Amboise was a dancer known for his power, not grace. His feet were flat with no arch, he didn't have great turout, and his body was beefy and muscular. As a result he did not have much classical line. However when one sees this Apollo we get a sense of raw energy that is missing in later renditions. Look at the height of d'Amboise's jumps, the reckless way he throws himself into the ballet. In d'Amboise's book I Was a Dancer he said Mr. B described the ballet as "a wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art." d'Amboise is the wildest, most untamed Apollo I've ever seen.

In this version the muses stay more in the background than they were to in the later renditions. Diana Adams as Terpischore has a chilly authority that keeps one at a distance. Her variation is different from the Terpischore variation most do today. It's jumpier, lighter, and more classical, without those off balance poses that would become a specialty of Suzanne Farrell (see below).

Farrell and Martins
The next version of Apollo is probably closest to the version we know today. Sure, the birthing scene is there, as is the apotheosis up the stairway. But the casting of the tall, blond Adonis-like Peter Martins as Apollo and Balanchine's Ultimate Muse to End All Muses Suzanne Farrell as Terpischore tips the balance of the ballet. There is nothing wild and untamed about Martins.  His take on Apollo has a rarefied, regal air. Farrell so dominates the screen that the ballet becomes Apollo and Terpischore. Farrell's unique mannerisms are now in the DNA of this ballet -- I haven't seen a Terpischore who hasn't tried to imitate the huge swings of her hips, her sharp elbows, her huge off-balance extensions.

Ever since the casting of Farrell and Martins casting for this ballet has favored tall, regal, leggy dancers in both roles. Sometimes I think Apollo casting is done by look rather than skill. NYCB's most prominent Apollo in recent years was Chase Finlay, who looked like Peter Martins Jr. Unfortunately he never got through an Apollo without a major stumble and awkward partnering. Other companies who have taken on Apollo have followed the Martins-Farrell blueprint -- I saw a particularly grotesque version by the Mariinsky where Apollo was more of a fashion show than ballet.

These changes to the ballet did not please Alexandra Danilova, who had created Terpischore. In her must-read autobiography Choura she wrote:
"Today it's a different ballet. For one thing, the steps for Terpischore's variation are different. What I danced was lighter, smaller and quicker. I did fifth, arabesque, fifth, arabesque -- nobody does that anymore. And then I did sissones -- my version was jumpier than the one they dance today. Balanchine changed it when Suzanne Farrell learned the part, beacuse she couldn't jump so well -- she's taller than I am, and she couldn't move so fast. For example, in the first part, she goes down on plié and turns on a bent knee in arabeque where I did sissone en tourmant, jumping and turning at the same time. It's the same movement, really, but with a different accent -- my accent was up, hers is down.
The adagio I did was the same as every Terpischore's, but lately I notice that dancers tend to emphasize the angular aspects and accelerate everything in between, which I didn't do. I tried to do one movement like the next, always light, always in harmony, so that the angular positions didn't jump out at the audience. Balanchine was doing something new, but he was not simply trying to shock.
Also, when we went on the toes and then off the toes onto our heels, I was as light on my heels as I was on my toes. Now dancers go very light on the toes but then stamp their feet when they go on their heels. We didn't do that, and I don't think Balanchine wanted it do be done that way. The idea was to make all these things part of a whole, not show the contrast between them. Going up on the toes was what everybody expected to see in a ballet, going down on the heels wasn't, but we did't call attention to it, by making one movement graceful and the other movement awkward -- we gave each movement equal weight."
In 1960 you can see Diana Adams do the "jumpier" solo of Terpischore that starts at 15:53 including the sissones en tourmant, as well as the less emphatic heel dancing, with less contrast between the toe and heel dancing.

Apollo took on its final form in this video. The birthing scene is cut, as is the apotheosis up the stairways. It now ends with the sunburst pose. But oddly the changes don't seem as radical as the changes between 1960 and 1968. Baryshikov is short but dances much like Martins -- regal, refined, very classical. Nothing wild and untamed about him. The trio of muses are rather forgettable but they follow the Farrell blueprint -- big hip swings, off balance extensions. Since then there have been short Apollos (Gonzalo Garcia took on the role after Chase Finlay was fired and Adrian Danchig-Waring injured) but most all of them have followed the Martins interpretation. An exception: Adrian Danchig-Waring, who was coached by (surprise!) Jacques d'Amboise.

The interesting thing is that the four videos of Apollo differ in style and in steps but the essence of Apollo is there in all of them. Balanchine tinkered with this ballet nonstop throughout his life. At one point he eliminated Apollo's solo altogether. Then he restored it. He took it out of the NYCB repertoire for several years altogether in the 1970's. But it remains the ballet he is most associated with, and the most resilient. It's like the Greek gods -- immortal even when badly danced.


  1. Thanks for putting this together. What a joy to watch the different versions.

  2. Terpsichore is Mirtha Pla.


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