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DANCE : An Identity Crisis at the New York City Ballet

May 29, 1988|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

NEW YORK — "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.

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