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DANCE REVIEW : N.Y. City Ballet Tries to Go Modern

Times Music/Dance Critic

In his day, fellow mortals referred to the revered director of the New York City Ballet simply as Mr. B. Now, five years after his death, the proper form of address would seem to be St. George.

Before terpsichorean canonization, Balanchine liked to focus world attention on Lincoln Center by staging exhaustive, inevitably uneven, often illuminating festivals inspired by a single composer. He celebrated Stravinsky first in 1972 and again in 1982, Ravel in 1975, Tchaikovsky in 1981.

Peter Martins, who inherited Balanchine’s duties if not his charisma, has had some trouble keeping the company in the center of the universe. Standards, local observers insist, have sagged as aesthetic focuses have blurred.

In a heroic effort to recoup former glories, Martins has decided to try something amazingly ambitious, if only reasonably new and different: a multidisciplined, three-week, $3.4-million American Music Festival.

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The ingredients include 21 premieres by 14 choreographers of varied stylistic persuasions, scores by 41 American composers of which five were specifically commissioned, stellar mini-concerts presented as seemingly irrelevant invitations to the dance, fancy scenic investitures for a company that had heretofore prided itself on bare-bones abstraction and 11 examples of chic contemporary art to adorn the forecurtain as well as the foyer and the cover of the program magazine.

It all sounds intelligent, daring, potentially stimulating, possibly exciting. Unfortunately, little of it turned out to be that way on Sunday. For all the hoopla, one left the State Theater twice with the senses vacillating between disappointment and disorientation.

It was as if New York’s supreme classicists had decided to go trendy-popsy out of either boredom or desperation. What should have been progressive looked merely pretentious. The lofty Balanchine gang, it seemed, was trying to emulate the earthy Joffrey gang. Mourning had become eclectic.

Ironically, the most impressive, most musically sensitive offering, Eliot Feld’s “The Unanswered Question,” dealt primarily in moods and theatrical images. The dance definitely was not the thing.

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Taking his cue from the gutsy surrealism of Charles Ives, Feld has created a poignant network of overlapping circus images. The virtuosic cast includes a man entangled in a sousaphone (Jeppe Mydtskov), another who rolls atop a drum (James Sewell), a woman who blissfully rides an antique tricycle (Buffy Miller), a blond vamp (Valentina Kozlova) and an innocent firebrand (Damian Woetzel).

The characters move with fluid inevitability in and out of silhouette, disappear into the abyss of a stage trap, reappear expectedly and unexpectedly, exchange props and switch personae, ascend a climactic rope ladder, float skyward. Everything happens. Nothing happens.

It is lovely, even poetic, but it has virtually nothing to do with the New York City Ballet. Two of the chief participants, not incidentally, happen to be guests from Feld’s own company.

The rest proved less engrossing. Bart Cook, a splendid Balanchine danseur, came up with an arch and elaborate mime show called “In the Hopper.” It turned out to be one of those cliche escapades in which the paintings come alive when the museum closes.

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In this case, figures from familiar works of Edward Hopper, Leger, Miro, Picasso, Rousseau et al., discover that they gotta dance, gotta dance after hours. The girl in red from “Nighthawks” (Maria Calegari) plays Eurydice to the Orpheus of a museum guard (Mydtskov). Cute.

There is a lot of confusing commingling, a chase scene, even a sequence--shades of “Astarte” and Laterna Magica--that shoves the live dancers through their paces on film. Clever.

Cook shows that he understands the quotations of his musical source, William Bolcom’s “Orphee Serenade.” The choreographer incorporates a few amusing quotes (Balanchinean, natch) of his own. Still, the entity suggests nothing so much as an expensive, puerile skit.

What else?

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--Robert LaFosse wrapped some vapid but cloying lyrical duets called “Woodland Sketches” in kitschy Victorian trappings, to the accompaniment of MacDowell. Even Darci Kistler got mired in the marshmallow murk.

--Richard Tanner’s “Sonatas and Interludes” (1982) provided a quirky Heather Watts and a heroic Jock Soto with some excuses for acrobatic banality to the tunes of John Cage.

--Laura Dean made everybody do a lot of mindless, effortful repetitive leaping and spinning, with a little numbing assistance from Steve Reich, in a new, deja-vu, post-mod, quasi-minimalist exercise called “Space.”

--Martins cranked out 13 little modern-looking duet-tangle banalities for something called “The Waltz Project.” The visual inspiration presumably came from Andy Warhol, the musical support from the likes of Lou Harrison, Philip Glass, Ivan Tcherepnin, Milton Babbitt and Morton Gould. There will be further opportunities to evaluate the cool, with-it, trendy choreography of the new boss.

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The old boss, St. George himself, was called upon to provide the cushion of sure-fire crowd pleasers. First there was the cheeky bravura of the Gottschalk “Tarantella,” modestly dispatched by Nichol Hlinka and an all-too-sturdy Peter Boal. Then came the sophisticated Gershwin funk of “Who Cares?,” with Patricia McBride on hand to remind Fun City of old times.


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