Another three reasons to go to the ballet

The Royal Danish Ballet is celebrating the artistic collaboration between choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky with a ballet evening in three parts: the early neoclassical Apollo, the tightly-knit Agon, and the jazzy Symphony in Three Movements.

Balanchine and Stravinsky were both Russian artists who made it big in the West. Both began their careers with the Ballets Russes – the trendsetting Paris-based company that inspired the visual and performing arts as well as fashion in the early 20th century and beyond. While Stravinsky (born 1882) already composed for the Ballet Russes’ early successes like Firebird (1910) or The Rite of Spring (1913), the younger Balanchine only joined the company in 1924, five years before its effective disintegration. But the two artists’ collaboration outlasted the influential Ballets Russes. When Balanchine went to America in 1933 to found what is today considered one of the world’s foremost ballet companies, the New York City Ballet, Stravinsky remained a favoured composer of his.

Balanchine’s works have become increasingly prominent in the Royal Danish Ballet’s repertoire since Nikolaj Hübbe took up the post as the company’s artistic director in 2008. Hübbe spent a considerable part of his career as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, before returning to his hometown Copenhagen. Three of Balanchine’s works have already featured in the Royal Danish Ballet’s 2011/12 season, including his dazzling version of The Nutcracker over Christmas, which hadn’t been performed in Europe since the early 1970s.

The Balanchine & Stravinsky evening begins with Apollo, Balanchine’s earliest surviving piece. He originally choreographed it for the Ballets Russes in 1928. The ballet is about the god Apollo and his encounter with three muses who all try to win his favour. Apollo dismisses the first two after they have each presented themselves to him in a dance: Calliope (muse of poetry) and Polyhymnia (muse of mime). Instead he chooses Terpsichore (muse of dance) who gets to dance a duet with him. Critic Nancy Goldner felt there was a “sportive, humanising attitude toward mythological figures” in the piece that was unsettling, especially for its early audiences.

Throughout the ballet, Apollo partners all the muses at once, two at a time, or one by one on the ground and in the air – in an early version of what became Balanchine’s distinctive neoclassical style. Mr B – as he was called in his company – himself regarded Apollo as his artistic coming-of-age.

The evening’s second piece, Agon, was premiered by the New York City Ballet in 1957 and is often described as one of Balanchine’s ultimate masterpieces. The choreography for 12 dancers is entirely abstract, without alluding to even a hint of storyline or clear emotional development.

Instead, it follows Stravinsky’s music, for which the composer was partly inspired by Renaissance court dances; in response, the choreography features amusingly exaggerated bows and arm movements. Mainly, however, the dancing is serious, and Balanchine choreographs ballerinas in extreme acrobatic positions, drawing on classical ballet moves but also on a range of more pedestrian kicks and lunges. His choreography perfectly complements Stravinsky’s first experiments with twelve-tone technique in the score.

Symphony in Three Movements concludes the triple bill. The piece was first presented at the Stravinsky Festival during which the New York City Ballet performed 31 ballets to Stravinsky’s music in the summer of 1972. Like Agon, and some of Mr B’s other choreographies, Symphony in Three Movements refers to the music without telling any particular story. It is a sprawling ensemble work in which Balanchine responds to Stravinsky’s jazzy score by using angular turned-in movements and brisk, athletic walking sequences.

Balanchine & Stravinsky
Gamle Scene, Kongens Nytorv, 1055 Cph K; ends May 21;

Performances at 20:00 on Fri, Sat, Tue, Thu, May 5, May 15, May 19, May 21;

Tickets 95–595kr; introduction 45 min before every performance in the balcony foyer (in Danish);