Who owns the ballets of George Balanchine? Is the obvious answer the most truthful? The issue of ownership, of primacy, loomed large Tuesday, when New York City Ballet brought to the Orange County Performing Arts Center four Balanchine masterworks familiar to local audiences from performances by other companies.
Linked by his bold and often profound musicality, here was the unsurpassed purity of form Balanchine defined in "Concerto Barocco" (1941), the charming vivacity of impulse in the Gottschalk "Tarantella" (1964), the startling modernistic innovation of "The Four Temperaments" (1946) and the imposing affirmation of academic tradition in "Theme and Variations" (1947).
As the House of Balanchine--the touchstone of his style--City Ballet should have looked equally authoritative in each of these classics. In fact, only "The Four Temperaments" escaped the imbalances in casting and deficiencies of production that plagued the program.
Capped by Peter Boal's brilliant performance of the Melancholic variation (intensely private yet filling the stage with his sense of need), the "4 Ts" also boasted the superbly sharp, forceful legwork of Diana White in the Choleric section, the nearly visionary gestural eloquence of Adam Luders in the Phlegmatic sequence and the drop-dead exactitude of Melinda Roy and Jock Soto in the Sanguinic duet. In addition, the Hindemith score inspired the best playing of the night from the company orchestra conducted by Hugo Fiorato.
However "Concerto Barocco" found the orchestra sounding slovenly in the Bach double violin concerto and Heather Watts looking both mannered and heavy (clenched balances, labored phrasing) opposite a conscientious Otto Neubert and a dutiful Judith Fugate.
Fugate appeared no more distinctive in "Theme and Variations," making her debut as the prima in place of the indisposed Merrill Ashley. No gaffes, no lapses of taste, but no majesty or presence either. And though Lindsay Fischer brought a measure of suavity to the demanding solos of her cavalier, the sublime pas de deux went nowhere.
After performances by San Francisco Ballet, the Kirov and American Ballet Theatre, "Theme and Variations" had virtually become the official ballet of the Orange County Performing Arts Center--but the City Ballet version scarcely measured up in either overall dancing finesse or production values. Nicolas Benois' costumes proved particularly unfortunate . . .
Immediately preceding "Theme": three short, relatively unfamiliar neo-Romantic ballets that Balanchine choreographed in 1970 and wrapped together with the earlier work as "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3." Each of these prequels featured a lone male and a minicorps of women in long, filmy, scooped-neck gowns, their hair worn loose, their movement style restless and fluid.
In "Elegie," a brooding Kipling Houston pursued and lost the very glamorous Maria Calegari. In "Valse Melancolique," an effortful Nilas Martins danced with the deft Lauren Hauser as if both were under a spell or lost in a dream.
Finally, in "Scherzo," Nichol Hlinka and Gen Horiuchi flew through a virtuosic coda to this three-part distillation of 19th-Century vision scenes: those poetic fantasies of yearning that contrast with the aristocratic formality of the ballroom (or wedding) acts represented by "Theme."
Completing the program: that zesty "Tarantella," with the highly accomplished but overbearing Damian Woetzel mismatched with the technically uneven but magnificently kittenish Margaret Tracey.
This company may not always be equal to its ambitions, but dancers like Boal, White, Luders, Calegari and Tracey do make the choreography their own and share their discoveries with a generosity that remains a City Ballet hallmark. They own Balanchine's ballets and, when they dance, so do we.
Performances will continue through Sunday afternoon.