By happy coincidence, public television is airing a 90-minute program tonight (Channel 26 at 8), "Balanchine and Stravinsky: Genius Has a Birthday," that serves as an ideal preview of a coming live attraction -- the two-week engagement of the New York City Ballet, which starts at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Wednesday evening.
The program, part of the Great Performances series and billed as a "Lincoln Center Special," was shot during an actual performance of the NYCB in the course of the troupe's Stravinsky Centennial Celebration this past summer. The date was June 18, Stravinsky's birthday; hence the somewhat precious program title. There's nothing precious about the contents, however, which amount to superlative performances of a pair of ballet masterworks, choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Igor Stravinsky: "Apollo" and "Orpheus."
The two ballets juxtapose splendidly. "Apollo," created in 1928 during Balanchine's tenure with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, is both the start and the pinnacle of balletic neoclassicism, and served as a watershed in the careers of both choreographer and composer. "Orpheus," a 1947 collaboration between Balanchine, Stravinsky and artist Isamu Noguchi, is similarly based on classical myth, but its musical and choreographic style is laced with fantastical, expressionist elements in high contrast to the distilled rigor of "Apollo."
The program, expertly directed by Emile Ardolino, is an object lesson in the varying difficulties of capturing dance performance on video. "Apollo" works brilliantly, largely because it's a piece for only four dancers and the cameras can keep us reasonably close in most of the time without losing any essential context. "Orpheus," on the other hand, not only calls for a large supporting cast but also depends heavily for its effects on the monumental decor effects by Noguchi.
Peter Martins performs the title role in both works. In "Apollo," he's joined by Suzanne Farrell, Kyra Nichols and Maria Calegari; in "Orpheus," by Karin von Aroldingen and Adam Luders as the other principals.