DANCE : An Identity Crisis at the New York City Ballet

"I know that George Balanchine, who ... founded the company and guided it to such heights, would be proud of its ongoing success under Peter Martins.. . ."

The words appear in the fancy souvenir program for the lavish, sprawling, ambitious, pretentious, ultimately disturbing 40th anniversary celebrations of the New York City Ballet. The omniscient voice uttering the happy all-purpose judgment emanates from an especially exalted haven of dance criticism: the White House.

Ronald Reagan may know that the mighty, latter-day-saintly Balanchine would approve of what is happening at the New York State Theater these days. The rest of us aren't so sure.

In the bright and distant past, when ballets had faces, ballet companies were run by choreographers. For better or worse--usually better--they created an aesthetic in their own image and tailored the repertory to their own dancers.

They knew what they wanted in matters of style, tone, technique, resource and scope. They knew how to get what they wanted.

Balanchine wasn't just a choreographer who directed a company. That puts it much too mildly. He was a choreographic genius, and the unique, neoclassical New York City Ballet was his company.

There is a lot of doubt about whose company it is now, five years after Balanchine's death. Peter Martins, who has inherited the bulk of Balanchine's responsibilities, doesn't come to the job as a choreographer. That is, no doubt, significant.

Like most of his colleagues at the helm of major international companies in the 1980s, Martins is a recently retired dancer. For him, the act of creation isn't an inevitable, irrevocable compulsion. It is more like an answer to a professional midlife crisis, the necessary byproduct of a crucial career change.

This should not imply that dancers can't be choreographers, or that Martins lacks talent as a maker--as opposed to performer--of ballets. He is intelligent, serious, dedicated and eclectic. He has seen a lot and done a lot. He was a wonderful danseur noble in his time, and he knows how to put his experience to good use in a dizzying variety of ways.

Unfortunately, he isn't a genius. He doesn't appear to be a leader with a unified vision for his company. Balanchine has left a formidable void, and it would seem that even Martins realizes that Martins can't fill it.

That doesn't stop him, however, from trying. Oh, how he tries. His efforts betray a certain air of desperation. Stylistic integrity may elude him. No one can say, however, that he isn't prolific. He keeps everyone around Lincoln Center--starting with himself--very busy.

For the current anniversary, he could have staged a sweeping Balanchine homage, could have attempted to revive some of the glories of Mr. B's Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Ravel festivals. That, no doubt, would have been too easy, and chronic retrospection was never part of the City Ballet tradition.

Instead, Martins decided to splurge $3.4-million on a gala American Music Festival. The statistics looked staggering. Within a hectic three-week span, he would present 21 new ballets, or reasonable facsimiles of new ballets. Eight of the novelties would be his own, and the rest would be contributed by prominent choreographers from other companies as well as by lesser talents from the City Ballet family. A few guests from the foreign territory of modern dance would be welcome too.

The scores, five of them specially commissioned, would represent the work of 41 American composers of various expressive persuasions. The big dance concerts would be preceded by little musical concerts. The performers would include such stellar visitors as Frederica von Stade, William Bolcom, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas and, climactically, Ray Charles. Eleven appropriate works of modern American art would hang in the foyer, adorn the cover of the printed program and be projected on the forecurtain.

It sounded like a major artistic attraction, and New York responded accordingly. So, for that matter, did the rest of the far-flung dance-and-music community. Some observers, starting with our President, were eager to bestow instant approval on everything. The New York City Ballet, after all, is supposed to be one of our national treasures. Other observers, the more sober ones, realized that they were witnessing the emphatic end of an era.

Without Balanchine, his company faces a chronic identity crisis. It is impossible to turn the State Theater into a shrine for Saint George. It also seems impossible, at the moment, to follow a new, comparably compelling leader. The second coming hasn't happened yet.

Under the circumstances, Martins would seem to be settling for a lot of trendy flailing and floundering. He has introduced eclecticism as if it were, by definition, a welcome escape and a liberating virtue. He has abandoned the unique purity of the classical idiom in favor of popsy diversion, theatrical distraction and psychobabbly rough-stuff.

There is a nasty Catch-22 here. Martins can't look backward very well, but when he attempts to look forward he succumbs to all the dangers of myopia. Under him, the City Ballet dancers seem to be losing much of their classical supremacy. At the same time, they don't seem particularly comfortable, or persuasive, in the sort of broad-ranging diversity that we have come to admire and expect from the less polished Joffrey company.

It would be tragic if, after four marvelous decades, Balanchine's great ensemble were to become just another gang that dabbles eagerly in a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But it seems to be happening.

We used to talk in awed tones of a specific City Ballet style. We used to boast of the the splendors of the City Ballet repertory. After seven installments of the American Music Festival, one fears the days are numbered.

Martins' own contributions to the festival showed signs of hasty preparation, shallow thinking and chronic chameleonism. He cranked out show-bizzy ballets, jazzy ballets, funky ballets, a minimalist-kitsch ballet, several brutalize-the-ballerina ballets, a couple of kinky athletic-exercise ballets. He played down erstwhile company strengths, stressed the chic and the glitzy, introduced the irrelevant, and--contrary to tradition and festival title--often trivialized the musical impulse.

The list of guest choreographers proved notable for several omissions. Jerome Robbins, Martins' nominal co-chief, reportedly was too busy to participate. That seemed ominous. Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Glen Tetley, John Neumeier, Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp were conspicuously absent. Moreover, the modernist strangers in this would-be balletic paradise--Laura Dean, Lar Lubovitch and Paul Taylor--took timid advantage of their unaccustomed opportunity.

For all his earnest effort and lofty intentions, Martins gave us a strangely skimpy and not-so-strangely frustrating festival. Essentially, it turned out to be a celebration of the fashionable and the mediocre.

Much of the time, it concentrated on dance pieces in which the actual dancing was of modest importance and minimal impact. The festival suggested that obfuscation and pretense have become staples of the New York City Ballet aesthetic.

Balanchine would not be proud.

A performance diary documents the lingering malaise and general distress.

Sunday afternoon, May 8: The overture finds William Bolcom at the piano and his wife, Joan Morris, at the microphone for songs of Irving Berlin, Stephen Foster and Cole Porter. Good idea. Bad vocalism.

"Into the Hopper," a new opus by Bart Cook, a veteran company danseur, uses elaborate sets, Laterna Magica movies, a few in-joke quotations and a lot of mime to recycle the fatuous kiddies' matinee cliche about how the paintings come to life after the museum closes. Eliot Feld's "The Unanswered Question" offers some pretty, surreal circus images to complement the sonic mysteries of Charles Ives.

Sunday night, May 8: Robert LaFosse, former would-be hero of American Ballet Theatre and the latest non-celebrity to write a premature autobiography, introduces a ballet of his own: "Woodland Sketches." It is a lyrical divertissement in Victorian dress, a vapid exercise dealing with the manner but not the substance of "Dances at a Gathering." Even the radiant Darci Kistler can make no impression here. The all-too incidental music is by Edward MacDowell.

"Sonatas and Interludes" by Richard Tanner, to prepared-piano music by John Cage, is just another innoccuous ritual in angular abstraction. Heather Watts, Martins' inexplicable and ubiquitous muse, is the rather spidery ballerina, partnered suavely by Jock Soto.

Martins' "Waltz Project" introduces a quirky series of mini-duets that frantically explore the deja vu limits of off-kilter, tippytoe modernism.

Droning minimalism arrives with the predictable, large-scale, repetitive patterns of Laura Dean's "Space," which translates a Xeroxed-arpeggio score by Steve Reich. The dancers work hard, look patently uncomfortable.

Wednesday, May 11: An inspired film-clip from from "Blue Skies" shows Fred Astaire puttin' on the Ritz in tribute to Irving Berlin. This turns out to be the niftiest part of the evening. Miriam Mahdaviani, a young member of the company, deals with hand-me-down Balanchine and recycled Robbins on the workshop level in "The Newcomers" (music by David Diamond). Martins' "Black and White" offers Watts and Soto another tired round of agressive-entanglement duets, this time to an ultra-banal New Wave score by Michael Torke.

The pop sensibilities are wooed flashily and rather nastily by William Forsythe in "Behind the China Dogs," a formalistic essay that makes the men look like gangly basketball players (a Danish giant named Jeppe Mydtskov dominates the scene) and the women like testy molls. The percussive electronic score is the work of one Leslie Stuck (according to the program, "a pack of dogs jam with two string quartets and a bowling ball"). The ceramic canines of the title, a handsome and irrelevant lot, are by Cara Perlman.

Thursday, May 12: John Adams' "Tromba Lontana" serves as instant-hit prelude for what turns out to be modern-dance night. Martins' "Barber Violin Concerto" finds none less than Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg making beautiful music under Robert Irving in the pit and the choreographer ignoring--or, worse, distorting--that music on the stage. Martins creates insensitive, funny images to match the serious sounds in this shotgun marriage between a pair of misunderstood barefoot primitives (Kate Johnson and David Parsons, visitors from the world of Paul Taylor) and a couple of misused resident sophisticates (Merrill Ashley and Adam Luders). Cheap shots.

The full Taylor company takes the stage, alone, for "Danbury Mix," a dark-humored, semi-satirical look at all-American patriotism with music by Ives (who else?). Although it is reasonably beguiling, one wonders what it has to do with the New York City Ballet.

Friday, May 13: Balanchine's shadowy, melodramatic, stylistically uneven "Ivesiana" of 1954 looks a bit dated now, even in its oddly expurgated edition. Still, it looks like the work of a choreographer with ideas in his head. As such, it also looks a bit out of place.

The basic dilemma haunting Martins and his colleagues becomes increasingly clear: They can either imitate Balanchine, which is futile, or do something worse that ill suits what survives of his company. Violette Verdy, one of the master's favorite ballerinas, returns to show what she can do as a choreographer: Little. "Set of Seven" provides mundane neoclassical bravura on the stage to match the mundane musical murk of some 1950s piano pieces by one Mary Jeanne van Appledorn.

The rest of the bill belongs to Martins. "Tea-Rose" has little to say in terms of choreography, but it does give us an opportunity to admire Patricia McBride as a casual-pop ballerina, and it does give Michael Tilson Thomas a welcome excuse to play slow and loose with some unfamiliar Gershwin tunes. "Ecstatic Orange," a Torke-inspired hit from last season, looks tough and strenuous. It is, incidentally, neither ecstatic nor orange.

Saturday, May 14: Not a happy night. Ib Anderson, another Balanchine danseur, tries his hand at choreography with "Baroque Variations," a self-conscious and jerky juxtaposition of tippytoe-modernism and picture-book antiquity. The formula score comes courtesy of Lukas Foss.

Martins strikes an all-festival low with "The Chairman Dances" (local experts claim Robert Weiss' "Archetypes" dipped even lower, but that disaster took place before my arrival). In this ethnic as well as artistic insult, poor Darci Kistler stoically leads a corps of 16 girls through some quaint dim-sum aerobics accompanied by out-takes from "Nixon in China." They do this sort of thing better in Vegas.

Christopher d'Amboise, the City Ballet's erstwhile gift to musical comedy, comes up with "The Bounding Line," a series of pretty-pretty maneuvers in which the interactions of the leading couple (Kyra Nichols and Adam Luders) are clumsily echoed by alter egos in silhouette (Wendy Whelan and Robert Lyon).

Sunday, May 15: Show-biz glitz dominates the not-so-grand finale. The tone is set by the American score selected to open the program: John Williams' "Olympic Fanfare." Judy Kaye adds overblown renditions of two Stephen Sondheim songs in uncomfortable sub-basement keys.

Martins contributes a major embarrassment in the form of "Fred and George," a couple of clumsy, even amateurish, variety-show skits illustrating para-professional songs by Astaire and Balanchine themselves. These charades might be mildly amusing--very mildly--at some post-performance bash where everyone consumes too much cheap wine.

Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine's own exalted muse, returns from retirement after hip surgery to offer a classy Ginger Rogers impression in a contrived jeu d'esprit called "Sophisticated Lady." The music is by Ellington, the dance patterns are by Martins, and the ballerina's chorus line of doting cavaliers in white tie and tails includes two--count 'em, two-- Martinses. Peter himself does a slick variation of the old soft shoe. The program coyly lists his name in small print, next to that of his Adonis of a son, Nilas.

To arouse climactic passions, Martins closes his show of shows with a generous Ray Charles concert. The old master sings and plays a dozen terrific songs while Judith Fugate slinks sexily, while Heather Watts slums urgently, while Jock Soto lurches beefily, while Robert LaFosse--self-absorbed as always--executes frenzied, virtuosic, pratfalls. At one point, Charles' gutsy songbirds, the Raelettes, sway and jab the air in unison to punch out the rhythm. Their simple gestures only underscore the cutesy artificiality of Martins' Bob Fosse borrowings.

Finally, Ray Charles sends the devout home in a mood of push-button euphoria with a valedictory solo: "America the Beautiful." The grandiose survey of domestic music and dance thus climaxes with no dance at all and with music notable primarily for its patriotic nostalgia.

Balanchine would have been confused.

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