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  • Title: Apollo with Night & The Sea Above, the Sky Below & Paquita
  • Genre: Ballet
  • Choreographers: George Balanchine, Julia Adam, Robert Binet and Marius Petipa
  • Company: The National Ballet of Canada
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Continues until March 21

The National Ballet of Canada's winter mix with artists of the ballet in Paquita.

Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

It’s an interesting moment to revisit George Balanchine’s 1928 Apollo, currently getting a beautiful production as part of the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program. The ballet is the sort of artistic achievement that can seem to exist outside of history – you might find yourself checking your program to confirm that it wasn’t choreographed in the last 10 years. Balanchine’s understanding of ballet was so intuitive and unimpeachable that it had the effect of gesturing in two temporal directions. His works are prescient, sure; his minimalist choreography and bare stages satisfy the sensibilities of modernism and beyond. But his ballets also seem to reach into antiquity and feel around for mislaid roots; they give the sense of unearthing hidden truths about the art form’s origins. And, perhaps, about art itself.

It’s in this exposure of truths that Balanchine’s ballets become more than abstract works of beauty; they are moral vehicles, too. Apollo is an almost too-perfect example of this moral perspective on art since it’s the ballet’s subject as well as its form. Apollo’s birth and visitation by the three muses is the quasi-origin story of Western art. The young god was one of the most complex deities, reigning over truth, knowledge and civilization in addition to his better-known jurisdiction over music. And so the chronicle of his enlightenment suggests that artmaking and truth-telling go hand in hand. Art is an ethical and ennobling enterprise that ties us to our sense of progress and meaning. You can see this in Balanchine’s urgent and expressive choreography, which feels shot through with a kind of immortal force.

But where do morals sit in ballet in 2019? If you’ve followed the scandal at the New York City Ballet – a company inextricable from Balanchine’s legacy – you might wonder if they have any place at all. In a recent New Yorker article on the retirement of artistic director Peter Martins and dismissal of three male company members, all concerning the sexual harassment and humiliation of female dancers, dance critic Joan Acocella went to great lengths to separate Martins’s tenure from Balanchine’s. According to her, Martins was a choreographer who hated women, beauty and feminine virtuosity, whereas Balanchine was a quasi-feminist who revered all three.

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I’m not the first critic to suggest that this is a gross distortion of the truth. The culture of sexualizing and objectifying women has been central to the company – in both artistic and operational ways – since its founding. Balanchine was a notorious womanizer who married four of his (often decades-younger) ballerinas and created a toxic, sexualized workplace where he aggressively pursued his employees. Like Apollo, Balanchine had muses – women he saw as refractions of his own genius, whom he became infatuated with and promoted or demoted as those infatuations changed. More than any other ballet, Apollo is autobiographical.

Did these thoughts disturb my enjoyment of this incredibly imagistic and architectural ballet? I’m not sure if I’m embarrassed or relieved to reveal that they did not. I caught Svetlana Lunkina as Terpsichore, Calley Skalnik as Calliope and Jillian Vanstone as Polyhymnia and felt that each of their performances was fully realized and empowered. The muses’ striking entrance sets a tone of supreme control: the women traverse the stage performing grand battements on pointe, as though these impressive kicks are as straightforward as walking. Their respective solos are expressive, detailed and inflected with bits of humour. In fact, the only sense of submission and vulnerability is displayed by Apollo (Félix Paquet) himself, who kneels as the muses penchée around him and later rests his head in their hands.

Another point of interest in the National’s production is the inclusion of Apollo’s very stylized birth scene, which Balanchine cut in 1979. The prelude features Apollo’s mother, Leto (Antonella Martinelli), sitting on a high podium above a staircase, her hair loose and her feet bare. It looks like a sequence of expressionist modernism, in which Martinelli tosses her hair around in circles and tucks and extends her legs into nonballetic positions. The tone is earthly and visceral, sensual but not erotic. It did provoke me to question whether I felt this portrayal of labour was distorted by a male gaze, but I walked away satisfied that it did not. I thought: If this had been choreographed by a woman, I’d find it just as bold and mesmerizing.

This is the thing about Balanchine: His focus on feminine beauty doesn’t make that beauty seem any less powerful or self-determined. And if you’re like me, and refuse to see femininity as a construct of patriarchy, his reverence can feel like an act of respectful witness, despite what was going on behind the scenes.

The mixed program features three other short ballets. There’s a delightful presentation of the 1881 Paquita, a sort of ballet-Olympics for its female soloists and corps, who are challenged with difficult successive jumps and endless turns. Less satisfying was Julie Adam’s Night, created in 2000 for the San Francisco Ballet, which consists of ungainly configurations of dancers that split one’s attention and doesn’t fulfill the stakes of its dramatic score.

By contrast, choreographic associate Robert Binet’s The Sea Above, The Sky Below, has an understated naturalism that intrigued me from beginning to end. The 10-minute ballet, set to the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, is constructed as a lovely, unaccented flow of choreography that lends a conversational quality to the relationship between its three dancers. First soloist Hannah Fischer does some wonderful, evocative dancing, bringing a rich sense of emotion and backstory to her role as the listener and guide among friends.

Apollo with Night & The Sea Above, The Sky Below & Paquita continues on March 20 and 21 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre.

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