by Caroline Dickie
May 26, 2021
Brendan Saye as Apollo. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
George Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet and the choreographer of hundreds of influential 20th century ballets, infamously said: “Ballet is woman.” However, he created one of his greatest roles, Apollo, for a male dancer. Created in 1928, Apollo was a milestone in Balanchine’s development as a choreographer and his first major collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky.
Representations of Apollo tend to show him fully formed, as a god at the height of his powers. But Balanchine takes his cue from the music of Stravinsky and presents Apollo as a young man, not yet ascended to greatness. Balanchine was a young man himself when he created Apollo, just 24 years old and on the cusp of international fame. This has led some to see an autobiographical basis for Apollo, a self-portrait of the artist learning his craft. With its pristine choreography and spare, poetic imagery, Apollo shows Balanchine coming into his own as a creator of pure, vividly musical dance.
Apollo is the kind of role that dancers aspire to perform, abundant in challenge yet still open for interpretation. He is a composite of multiple characteristics one can play up or down – noble, weighted by destiny, playful and curious – and he is guided to maturity by his three Muses. Although Balanchine revised Apollo many times during his career, he never abandoned the youthfulness or potential of the title character. Dancing it requires intuition, musicality and a balance of exuberance, lyricism and control.
Several dancers made their reputations as gifted interpreters of Apollos and for others it became a signature role. Below, we celebrate some of ballet’s finest Apollos from around the world and here at home.
Lew Christensen. Photo by George Platt Lynes. Jacques d'Amboise. Edward Villella. Photos from the New York City Ballet Archives.
In 1937, Lew Christensen became the first dancer to perform Apollo in America. One of Balanchine’s first leading male dancers, Christensen went on to be Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet until his death in 1984.
Jacques d’Amboise, former Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet, is widely considered to have been the foremost interpreter of Apollo. He brought new attention to the role when Balanchine revived it for him in 1957. An inspirational dancer on stage and screen, d’Amboise went on to be a passionate dance educator who collaborated with the National Dance Institute to provide free classes for children. The dance world mourns his passing on May 2, 2021 at the age of 86.
“I think Apollo is the best role for a male dancer that has ever been choreographed, and I think it has more in it than any dancer is capable of doing.” – Jacques d’Amboise
Balanchine coached Edward Villella in the role of Apollo at New York City Ballet in the 1960s. Villella was the most famous male dancer of his era and in 1985, he brought his vast knowledge of Balanchine to Miami City Ballet as founding Artistic Director.
“Male dancers are fascinated by Apollo. It’s a huge role but one of incredible restraint.” – Edward Villella
Ib Andersen. Photo by Steve Caras. Rex Harrington. Photo by Andrew Oxenham. Calvin Royal III. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Ib Andersen, for whom Balanchine created a role in Mozartiana, first performed Apollo with New York City Ballet in 1980. A former Principal Dancer with The Royal Danish Ballet, Andersen went on to stage The National Ballet of Canada’s first performance of Apollo in 1999.
“Apollo takes you to the highest level of performance that you can experience.” – Ib Andersen
Rex Harrington, O.C.
Artist-in-Residence Rex Harrington was one of The National Ballet of Canada’s most glorious Apollos. He made his debut in the role with the company premiere of Apollo in 1999.
“Every male dancer wants to do Apollo because of its simplicity and beauty. It’s a hard role stamina wise but so incredibly spiritual and moving, and a moment I will always cherish.” – Rex Harrington
Aleksandar Antonijevic, former Principal Dancer of The National Ballet of Canada, was an iconic Apollo for the company. He is now an award-winning fine art photographer.
Tiler Peck and Craig Hall. Taylor Stanley. Photo by Erin Baiano. Aleksandar Antonijevic. Photo by Peter Stipcevich.
In 2011, Craig Hall became the first African-American dancer at New York City Ballet to perform Apollo. In 2019, he coached his colleague Taylor Stanley in the role.
Taylor Stanley, Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet, made his first appearance as Apollo in 2019, with one New York Times reviewer calling his performance a “thrillingly authoritative debut.”
“I started thinking about the three Muses as teachers rather than in a romantic relationship. A lot of my friendships are with women, and those women have raised me, almost. So I pictured each Muse as one of those friends.” – Taylor Stanley
Calvin Royal III
Calvin Royal III, Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), made his acclaimed debut as Apollo in 2019.
“It’s this young god who goes from adolescence to stepping into his light. As a dancer that’s something that I see for myself: I feel like I’m really just stepping into my own domain and embracing that.” – Calvin Royal III