Well into its winter repertory season, which runs through March 1, the New York City Ballet presented two new works on January 22, the ninety-fourth anniversary of George Balanchine's birth. In a speech before the curtain, his successor, Peter Martins, declared, "This is Balanchine's house. It will always be Balanchine's house." A fine sentiment, though some of us veterans think of City Center -- the NYCB's first home, where we witnessed wonders -- as an equal contender for such landmark status. Still, it's a fine sentiment, but words are one thing and deeds another. The evening's new ballets, by Martins himself and Richard Tanner, demonstrated the mechanical skill and appalling sterility typical of the company's post-Balanchine additions to the repertory, while the single Balanchine work on the program, the great Stravinsky Violin Concerto, was so carelessly performed as to insult the memory of its creator.
Martins pointed out, correctly, that Balanchine was keenly interested in new ballets -- thus the company's intention of making the birthday program of premieres an annual event. Martins's further assertion that Balanchine was eager not only to make new work himself but also to help other choreographers do so begs examination. Martins himself was mentored by Balanchine, but perhaps not so much by Balanchine-the-choreographer extending his hand to burgeoning talent as by Balanchine-the-administrator realizing that a future leader of the NYCB would be expected to provide at least serviceable dances. As for the others who augmented the company's repertory, apart from Jerome Robbins, who hardly needed cultivating, the "house choreographers" to whom Balanchine offered an opportunity provided the novelty necessary to lure audiences and stimulate dancers but almost nothing lasting. Given Balanchine's vein of sly wickedness, it's even possible to speculate that one of his motives for "encouraging" his minor, homegrown dance-makers was to make his own ability all the more apparent. The man may have been a genius, but he was not a saint.
Martins's latest effort, Concerti Armonici, is a music-visualization affair; the music, once thought to be Handel's or Pergolesi's, is now attributed to the eighteenth-century Dutch aristocrat Unico Wilhelm Graf van Wassenaer. The intricate, geometric patterns of the choreography mirror the formality of the music, steadfastly ignoring its enchantments. The dancers' bearing has the self-conscious solemnity of a pageant, and their simple white costumes (by William Ivey Long) augment a self-congratulatory message of purity.
Martins manipulates his corps -- twelve women and nine men -- with a dexterity from which human accident and human feeling have been excised. Instead of appointing a reigning pair, he divides star responsibility between two couples (Margaret Tracey and Nikolaj Hübbe, Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal) without giving them any distinguishing characteristics. The two pairs are cleverly threaded through the matrix of the corps, left to confront each other on a cleared stage, and awarded their individual pas de deux -- full of tricky manipulations devoid of emotional and theatrical impact. The overall effect is tedious and cold.
Richard Tanner's ballet, Variations on a Nursery Song, is not so imposing (fewer people; considerably more lighthearted), but it operates in the same human-chessboard vein as the Martins. That these school-of-Balanchine choreographers could have mistaken some devices of their master for the essence of his art -- and persisted so obdurately in their misconception, Martins for two decades, Tanner even longer -- is almost beyond belief. For the record: Tanner's score is an early-twentieth-century piece by the Hungarian Ernst von Dohnányi; the song is the one we call "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (Mozart played with it, too). Miranda Weese and Peter Boal were the chief couple, Weese glorious but unextended by her material and Boal, who could coax a subtext from a phone book, pretending there was more to the choreography than met the eye.