By Barry Johnson
In Peter Paul Rubens’ lively painting of the myth of Apollo and Daphne, Apollo has nearly caught the mythically beautiful daughter of the river god. Both arms stretch for Daphne’s fleeing figure, and his right hand must already sense the aura of the flesh it is about to touch. She bends back to see how close he is, and we glimpse her left profile. All of the energy of the painting is in that central, close encounter of desire, Apollo’s desire, and Daphne’s desperate flight.
Then the viewer’s eye travels to the upper right corner of the painting. The fingers of Daphne’s hands have begun to turn into laurel branches.
After Daphne calls out to the river god for help, Ovid continues the story in his Metamorphoses:
…vix prece finita torpor gravis occupat artus, mollia cinguntur tenui praecordia libro, in frondem crines, in ramos bracchia crescunt, pes modo tam velox pigris radicibus haeret, ora cacumen habet: remanet nitor unus in illa.
To paraphrase: Daphne’s limbs become numb and turn to branches; her hair begins to leaf; bark replaces her skin; those flying feet become roots. But somehow, her presence still shines through.
Apollo is thwarted but at a desperate cost. Daphne, who has pledged to live a chaste life like the goddess Diana, keeps her promise. But she can’t run the fields and bathe in the rivers of her father.
The myth of Daphne and Apollo has been on my mind lately. It’s far from the only example of the Olympian gods’ assault on women, by force or trickery. But somehow, as the stories about sexual harassment and assault against women by modern day/would-be Apollos spread to the arts, I’ve focused on it more.
And yes, the stories are spreading. As I type this, Peter Martins, the longtime Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet, is in the spotlight. (So is the Metropolitan Opera’s James Levine, who is accused of sexual abuse by four men.) According to a New York Times report, the company received an anonymous letter accusing Martins of unspecified instances of sexual harassment—both at the company and the company’s school, which Martins runs. The Times did a little sleuthing of its own and found a source who said that Martins had admitted to having romantic relationships with dancers in the company, though that has been against company policy only since 2010.
A key paragraph from the Times story:
“In recent interviews, two former City Ballet dancers and three former students at the school described a culture in which Mr. Martins was known for sleeping with dancers, some of whom received better roles because of their personal relationships with him.”
And the Times found a story that former NYCB dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt had written for Psychology Tomorrow, which claimed that Martins was a Casanova like Balanchine had been, but “a basher,” not a charmer. In the same story, she describes being groped by Balanchine as he lay in a hospital bed. He would die the next spring.
That account is hard to read. Balanchine has bottles of liquor in the cabinet next to his hospital bed (smuggled in by model Christie Brinkley, no less). He and Frankfurt start drinking, and he starts fiddling with her blouse. He’s also given her the small role she’s asked for, and he was dying.
“Just let me investigate,’ he says, starting to unbutton it. I’m half disgusted, half admiring his tenacity. Here he is at the end, still compelled to trace the gentle curves he has devoted his life to glorifying.”
I imagine Frankfurt’s skin turning to bark beneath his fingers, just like Daphne’s as Apollo paws at her, and even as Daphne becomes a tree, he feels for her beating heart beneath the bark, at least in Ovid’s telling of the story.
Why does Frankfurt allow it to go on—and how does it end?
“There is nothing to be gained,” Frankfurt writes, “No lead role to win. No insider’s circle to reign pre-eminent in for a minute. Give in. Like I had to my mother’s boyfriend when I was 13. His hands are there…but fathers don’t do this. And because I love this father so much and because I hate him for not loving me enough to not do this, I push him away and step off the bed.”
It’s harrowing…even though Frankfurt had some control in the situation. The price is the metamorphosis from a free, independent human being into a laurel tree, if just for a moment. The desperate flight. The internal debate and then explanation and then recrimination. Meanwhile, Apollo runs free, even if, as in Balanchine’s case, that charming canter soon ends in death.
One last thing from Frankfurt’s account: She explains the power that artistic directors, movie directors, bosses of all types have over the women who find themselves in their employ.
“Understand that fairness is not a consideration when casting ballets,” she writes. “Careers are made according to the immediate desires of the Ballet Master or choreographer.”
In other words, there are many women who can do the same job and few jobs to be had. And so many of those jobs are controlled by men. Until that starts to change—and it must—Rubens’ depiction of Apollo and Daphne will continue to be today’s news.