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A Fearless Leap Into History

Fifty years ago, Balanchine's revolution set ballet's world spinning.

October 11, 1998|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Oct. 6, 1962: New York City Ballet's first visit to Russia and George Balanchine's return to his homeland after 38 years. Mobs of Soviet officials, State Department delegates and reporters meet the plane at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. "Welcome to Russia, home of the classical ballet," says the interviewer for Radio Moscow. "I beg your pardon," Balanchine replies. "Russia is the home of Romantic ballet. The home of classic ballet is now America."

That statement reverberates down the decades and seems especially resonant right now when most of the international bastions of Romantic tradition--the Royal Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Bolshoi, the Kirov--suffer from paralyzing artistic crises of one sort or another but happen to agree on one thing: the need to prove themselves modern by dancing Balanchine. Of course, New York City Ballet has also been accused of losing its grip since Balanchine's death in 1983. But its primacy remains intact: It still fields an unmatched repertory of 20th century masterworks, and it still dances them in a distinctive manner that evolved to meet the challenge of that repertory.

The company dances some of that repertory in a weeklong engagement starting Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

In its first 50 years, the company not only Americanized ballet in ways still not fully recognized, it also helped redefine the very idea of what a ballet should be. Forget narrative and character portrayals, star showpieces or production spectacles: As much as we enjoy them, they belong to the past, the Romantic era that Balanchine mentioned. The City Ballet revolution--Balanchine's revolution--made music visualization the cornerstone of contemporary classicism and musicality the virtue prized most in each new crop of classical dancers or choreographers.

These days, musicality and music visualization can be structural, intuitive, irreverently idiosyncratic. But, whatever path they take, they makes a key break with Romantic Franco-Russian tradition, deriving from what City Ballet co-founder Lincoln Kirstein called "a difference in the way Americans measure time, and a national discrepancy in notions of speed, pace, grace and motion."

"Before he left Russia, Balanchine knew that the 20th century needed its own tempi, which were jazzy and syncopated. . . ." Kirstein wrote, "The New York City dancers epitomize in their quirky legginess, linear accentuation and athleticism a consciously thrown-away, improvisational style which can be read as populist, vulgar, heartless, over-acrobatic, unmannerly or insolent. It is also a style of living which may be interpreted as having small respect for its forebears--its elders and, naturally, betters."

In his passion for irony, Kirstein may not mention that it's also a style that became increasingly shaped by American cultural diversity, with black and Latino influences at the top of the list. Those influences have become so deeply absorbed that sometimes you notice them only when they are absent--in performances of City Ballet rep by first-rate, excellently coached foreign ensembles, for example, that lack an innate sense of swing or a certain sensual stretch. Even worse: performances that try too strenuously to project those qualities or to achieve what foreign critics once sneeringly called "l'a^me frigidaire," but which soon became envied as "American cool."

Obviously, no ballet choreographer ever epitomized cool more than Jerome Robbins, and his presence as a guiding spirit would have made City Ballet a major company and a force for innovation even if Balanchine weren't Balanchine. Restlessly eclectic and a master of stylistic assimilation, he took the innovations of Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille and others to an unprecedented level of sophistication, creating a free-floating yet potent sense of drama through sensitivity to the music and the nuances of interaction between dancers.

Together, Balanchine and Robbins defined City Ballet as a vehicle for contemporary creative expression--then a sideline for every other major classical ensemble, but dominant at City Center and, later, Lincoln Center to an extent unmatched since the heyday of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes early in the century. This emphasis gave the company's home-grown or imported principals a different role than the stars of other companies: not the whole show but servants to something much bigger than themselves.

Indeed, the concept of star dancing began to change under the influence of City Ballet's task-oriented virtuosi, depending less on the dancer projecting a sense of high occasion or inner fire than moving like nobody else on Earth. And as the leggy, flesh-less, small-headed City Ballet body image began to become the norm for American and later world classicism, so the company's emphasis on functional attire--including the all-American T-shirt--grew fashionable as well.

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