Apollo, choreographed in 1928 for the Ballets Russes by the 24-year-old George Balanchine and known originally as Apollon Musagète, is widely regarded as the fountainhead of contemporary classicism. The significance of Balanchine’s achievement was apparent from the first, most notably to Serge Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes’ great impresario, who, watching a rehearsal one day before the premiere, is said to have remarked: “What he is doing is magnificent. It is pure classicism, such as we have not seen since Petipa’s.”
This comment must be understood within the context of experimental choreography that Diaghilev himself had done so much to foster. Since the early years of the century, dance works had been created by young choreographers, among them Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska, and Balanchine himself, who, in their determination to bring ballet into the modern age, often had strayed far from their classical inheritance. With Apollo, Balanchine reclaimed that inheritance, demonstrating unmistakably that, in Lincoln Kirstein’s words, “tradition is…the very floor which supports the artist, enabling him securely to build upon it elements which may seem at first revolutionary, ugly, and new both to him and to his audience.” Unusual lifts, heel-shuffles, jazzy hip action, syncopated pointe work, swivels close to the floor, startling plastic configurations—these and a wealth of other innovations may have shocked Apollo’s first viewers, but, as Kirstein reminds us, “they were so logical an extension of the pure line of Saint-Léon, Petipa, and Ivanov that they were almost immediately absorbed into the tradition of their craft.”
Balanchine’s own account of the significance of Apollo gave credit, characteristically, to its music—the radiant neoclassical score that Igor Stravinsky had composed a year earlier for an American production but which he ultimately intended for Diaghilev’s company. Recalling the beginning of the extraordinary creative relationship between himself and Stravinsky that was to extend over nearly 50 years, Balanchine described Apollo as “the turning point of my life.” In examining Stravinsky’s score, Balanchine said, he first realized how he, too, might intensify the aesthetic effect of his own work by selection and restrain, by containing energy and feeling within formal unity. In essence, he affirmed anew the timelessness of classical values and appropriated them for himself.
It is perfectly apt that this commitment should first have been expressed by Balanchine in Apollo, a work whose subject matter itself is the genesis of classicism. In the ballet’s narrative, the infant god, here identified with music, is born, begins to develop his strength, meets and frolics with the three muses most closely associated with his art—Calliope (poetry and its rhythm), Polyhymnia (mime), and Terpsichore (dance), bestows on each the symbol of her art—the tablet, mask, and lyre respectively, watches as they invent those arts, celebrates the favored relationship between himself and Terpsichore, and, finally, fully masterful, assumes his godhead.