A few years ago, I bought a CD of Stravinsky ballets. I needed a recording of the opening section of "The Rite of Spring" for a lecture (in the course "Evil in the 20th Century" - over a big sound system, it was awesome!). Also on the CD was a slight handwave of a piece called "Apollo." I've heard it many times since, but it never seemed much. Until today! "Apollo" (originally "Apollon Musagète") was written in 1928 for George Balanchine while he was still with the Ballets Russes, and he brought it with him to what is now the New York City Ballet. Over ensuing decades, Balanchine trimmed and purified it, removing the entire set, costumes, and most of the narrative. What remains is pure joy. A young god comes into his godhood with the help of three muses, representing the arts. Every movement is grace.
Today's was also only the second performance as "Apollo" of a rising star of NYCB, Chase Finlay - who's not yet twenty. That might have been why it all seemed so pure, and playful. I gather that the part is often danced by a mature dancer, who brings more psychological complexity to it. The Times reviewer put it this way: "He’s so young that he hardly yet knows how to be young onstage. But he keeps the ballet entirely fresh."
After the performance (which also included "Square Dance" and "Agon"), there was a free discussion and dance demonstration with Finlay, Sterling Hylton (his Terpsichore) and NYCB Ballet Master and long-time Apollo Peter Martins (that's him at right, in 2005) - who told how he had started "Apollo" young, too. City Ballet had been performing at Edinburgh, their Apollo injured himself, and no well-known Apollo in Europe was available. So Martins was flown in from Denmark, on a second-hand recommendation. Balanchine ("Mr. B") was all encouragement until after the second night, when he said: "All wrong!" and spent three hours putting Martins through his paces for dancing it too classically - it should be "demi-caractère." Martins remembers every word Mr. B then said to him (now over 40 years ago), and Mr. B's words lived again as Finlay and Hylton danced a few scenes, Martins intervening and sometimes showing.
I managed to score a seat in the first row of the orchestra for this. Watching it across the darkened orchestra pit in the kitschy cavern of the New York State Theater, was like seeing the world of the gods.