The performance of George Balanchine's "Apollo" last night -- midway in the American Ballet Theatre program at the Kennedy Center Opera House -- seemed, dare it be said, worth the whole season. This is not to demean the season, which has been admirably substantial thus far, but only to extol "Apollo," a ballet the like of which comes along at most a few times in a century. The dancing, with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the title role, and Susan Jaffe, Christine Spizzo and Cheryl Yeager as the muses Terpsichore, Polyhymnia and Calliope, had its own quite-special charge, and Baryshnikov's Apollo, not unexpectedly, proved extraordinarily gripping and exhilarating. But it was Balanchine's choreography, in combination with Igor Stravinsky's music, that made such dancing possible and gave last night's performance the feeling of privileged experience, something above and beyond the usual rewards of the theater.
This is not the place to recount the origin of the score as an Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commission, or of Balanchine's ballet within the Diaghilev company in 1928, except to recall the choreographer's oft-quoted remark that it was "the turning point" of his life. But it is worth noting that the present ABT revival, as staged by John Taras of the New York City Ballet, represents the present end-point of a long evolution, the burden of which has been an ever-more-drastic stripping away of accoutrements. This paring process, conducted in accordance with Balanchine's wishes, has lopped off sets, costumes and props of the past, along with, more recently, a prologue and epilogue depicting Apollo's birth and ascent to Olympus. What's left is an abstract ballet danced in white studio togs, with three residual, token props identifying the muses, and a stool for Apollo -- one would be tempted to call it austere if it weren't so full of playfulness at the same time. The remaining connections with any specifics of Apollonian mythology are both fleeting and tenuous.
Distillation, however, is the very essence of "Apollo," and maybe Balanchine has been right to slice it to the bone. The real "story" of "Apollo" is the euphony and expressive rhythm of dance movement, even -- or rather, especially -- when divested of literal content. The ballet illustrates the marriage of poetry and logic in the realm of gesture, just as its techniques are a lexicon of strategies Balanchine was to expand and develop throughout his career.
Still and all, the dance imagery itself, and the presence of a dancer as attuned to dramatic subtext as Baryshnikov, wouldn't let us forget about Apollo as a character last night. What Balanchine had in mind was not a majestically serene divinity but, as he once wrote, "a wild, half-human youth who acquires nobility through art." That's just what Baryshnikov gave us, a creature of brusque, pagan energy, cocky with his own power but only dimly aware of his elevated destiny. The muses, all relatively new to their roles, seemed more embryonic than fulfilled, but nevertheless one could admire Spizzo's incisiveness, Yeager's girlish sparkle, and especially, Jaffe's svelte, limber audacity.
Elsewhere on the program, Cynthia Gregory and Kevin McKenzie not only made a well-matched pair of leads in "Carmen," but also threw themselves into the dancing with the kind of smoky frenzy the ballet demands. Marianna Tcherkassky and Ross Stretton were the principals in a "Bayadere" Shades scene of rather uneven inspiration.