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Enduring 'Apollo' taking off

N.C. Dance Theatre is going back to a popular source by performing the early Balanchine work for the very first time.
By Steven Brown
The Charlotte Observer

There's no question about where George Balanchine put his priority: "Ballet is woman," the choreographer once said.

He had a point. A list of ballets with central characters who are male would end quickly. Yet Balanchine skirted his rule long enough to create one that might stand at the top: "Apollo."

It shows us the Greek god in his youth, maturing before our eyes with the help of three of the muses who champion the arts. In a way, it mirrors Balanchine's own life. When he created "Apollo" in 1928, he was a budding choreographer of age 24, making contact with his own muses.

Of Balanchine's 60 years' worth of ballets, "Apollo" is the earliest that survives. So you might say that N.C. Dance Theatre is going to the source. After performing numerous other Balanchine works since hiring two of his former dancers as leaders, NCDT will perform "Apollo" for its first time beginning Thursday.

Associate artistic director Patricia McBride, who first performed in "Apollo" as an 18-year-old, watched a run-through last week in NCDT's NoDa home. By the time David Ingram and Traci Gilchrest reached the pas de deux for Apollo and Terpsichore, the muse of dance, McBride couldn't keep her thoughts to herself.

"It just sings," she said.

She could've been referring either to Balanchine's choreography or to Igor Stravinsky's music for string orchestra - both of which are lyrical, simple and clean. McBride actually hummed along with a phrase or two of Stravinsky.

Finally, Ingram and Gilchrest reached the duet's climax. He knelt, head lowered. She stretched atop him, balanced by her stomach on his neck. They extended their arms and slowly stroked the air, as if a breeze could carry them aloft.

"Isn't that beautiful?" McBride asked. "It's so pure."

The ballet originally opened with a scene representing Apollo's birth. Balanchine eventually dropped that.

Now the curtain rises on a lone Apollo, who begins to experiment with his lute. Rock 'n' roll guitarists who came along decades after "Apollo" would no doubt be startled to learn that one of their classic showboat moves - swinging their right arms like a windmill - was choreographed by George Balanchine.

The story unfolds with a clarity that befits its classical inspiration. Apollo's first solo is "all about being young," said Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, NCDT's artistic director. Apollo exudes "the energy you bring when you're realizing what your body is capable of doing."

Then he's joined by three muses: Calliope, muse of poetry; Polyhymnia, muse of mime; and Terpsichore, muse of dance. Each demonstrates her art to Apollo in a solo. In a second solo, after all he has absorbed from the muses, Apollo displays his new stature.

"He's becoming a god," Bonnefoux said.

Bonnefoux had never seen "Apollo" until he was hired to perform it with Balanchine in the 1960s.

One of Balanchine's New York City Ballet dancers couldn't fill an engagement in Germany. Bonnefoux, then a member of the Paris Opera Ballet, was recommended as a fill-in. Five days with Balanchine and "Apollo" led him to a conclusion:

"If I wanted to be serious about moving forward in my career," Bonnefoux said, "I had to work with that man."

He eventually asked to join the New York City Ballet, and Balanchine agreed. That brought Bonnefoux to the United States, where he danced with Balanchine for a decade and, offstage, married another member of the company: McBride.

All that began with "Apollo."

"This ballet," Bonnefoux said, "changed my life."