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The Performers : A Dual Appeal

September 21, 1986|LEWIS SEGAL | Lewis Segal is a Times s taff w riter.

Of the events announced for the first season of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, none represent a greater coup than the first Southern California appearance in 12 years of New York City Ballet.

For both the unprecedented number of masterpieces created in its discontinuous 52-year history and for its radical redefinition of classical dancing, City Ballet is considered among the world's greatest dance companies.

Where other ensembles still look to 19th-Century Paris and Leningrad for basic repertory and thus reinforce a vision of ballet as an art shackled to antique narrative conventions and court spectacle, City Ballet has developed a body of work and a style reflecting the speed, complexity and unabashed celebration of physicality in 20th-Century American life.

Its repertory is danced by many other companies (including its chief rival on these shores, American Ballet Theatre), and through its influence the one-act, plotless music-visualization has become the prevalent choreographic idiom in contemporary ballet.

However, the company itself only occasionally ventures beyond the New York State Theatre in Lincoln Center and its summer home, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. As the group's co-director, Pe- ter Martins, explains, the reason is money.

"It's that simple," he says. "Nobody can afford us. We're too big."

With more than 100 dancers, a 65-member orchestra that contractually must be invited on tour, plus administrative personnel and backstage staff, City Ballet is indeed an enormous and expensive touring package.

Though Martins declines to suggest a specific amount, he estimates that the three-week 1986 West Coast visit--to Berkeley and Seattle, as well as the Oct. 15-19 Costa Mesa performances--will cost "substantially closer to $2 million than $1 million." Earlier, Barbara Horgan, company special projects administrator, had projected touring costs in the neighborhood of $625,000 a week, based on the City Ballet's 1985-86 budget.

A donation from Lawrence A. Wien, a major contributor to production and education funds, whom Martins identifies as "an angel here in New York," made the tour possible. "He didn't underwrite the entire thing," Martins says, "but he gave us enough. Without him we wouldn't have gone."

Why the Orange County Performing Arts Center?

"The Orange County offer seemed to be a wonderful new way of maybe being able to come to the L.A. area on a more consistent basis," Martins says, adding that negotiations for other possible Southern California engagements haven't worked out.

An opportunity to perform in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium during the Olympic Arts Festival two years ago fell through, and long-term plans to dance at the Los Angeles Music Center weren't fruitful because of incompatible schedules, he says.

In addition, the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park (where the company last danced locally) no longer seems an appropriate venue ("The Greek is not doing this kind of stuff anymore, is it?"), and Martins is reluctant to have City Ballet sponsor itself without financial guarantees at the Shrine Auditorium.

But there's also a question of standards. For example, a few years ago City Ballet refused to dance at the Kennedy Center in Washington until the floor was rebuilt to company specifications.

"We're very spoiled with our own theater," Martins says, "and when we go out, we frankly expect the worst. In this particular case, we're expecting a lot because the Orange County Performing Arts Center seemingly has everything for us: the large stage; a terrific, huge pit for our big orchestra; great backstage facilities."

Martins himself hasn't seen the center, but he's impressed by what his staff has reported. "I think everything we need is there," he says, "and it's nice to be part of something new. We will see what happens."

On the last City Ballet visit to Southern California, Martins was one of the company's most distinguished dancers, and he admits being eager to display on this tour a generation of City Ballet performers that West Coast audiences have never seen. He's especially proud of the new standard of male dancing in the company. "I think that the level has skyrocketed in the last 10 years," he says.

Much of this new generation, he reveals, never met or had very little experience with the late George Balanchine, the architect of City Ballet's repertory and style--and, for many balletomanes, the greatest choreographer of this century.

Though it has been argued that City Ballet's mission and destiny is to be the guardian of the Balanchine legacy--much as the Royal Danish Ballet (Martins' original company) is celebrated for its preservation of August Bournonville's ballets--Martins insists that he is not interested in running a ballet museum or shrine.

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