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Corps Curriculum

After years of backsliding, the New York City Ballet has recaptured the precision that its signature Balanchine repertory demands.

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The New York City Ballet opened its spring season with a healthy dose of Balanchine, danced more forcefully and cogently than this repertoire -- the company's chief reason for existing -- has been danced in quite a while. For some years, the celebrated precision-honed NYCB technique has been growing lackadaisical, the sharp attack of phrases and clean finishes of steps that were once the company's trademark becoming weak and smudged. This decline now seems to be turning around. Exactitude appears to be the goal once again, even if it is not consistently achieved, and the dancing is more three-dimensional and robust, after dispiriting seasons of flat, flimsy paper-doll work.

Monumentum pro Gesualdo, one of the most beautiful small artifacts of Western culture, and highly dependent on its corps de ballet, serves as an example of the strong, focused, sculptural work the current NYCB ensemble can achieve. Symphony in C, which offers a whole universe of dance -- allegro, sublime adagio, and witty bravura as well as a finale that's an unabashed display of a company's power -- has regained a good measure of the impact it used to have. The most sublime moments were, of course, provided by the two fine casts of principals, among them Darci Kistler, whose potent imagination sweeps you away; Philip Neal, who is making great strides as a masterly cavalier; and Albert Evans, whose feeling for continuity in movement is so highly developed, even his moments of stillness resonate. But it's the corps de ballet that provides the matrix for these wonders, and today's corps displays a commendable vitality. For a viewer whose standards weren't set by the glories of Balanchine's heyday, the current rendition of the ballets may well be exhilarating. The rest of us may be forced to admit that these readings are about as good as we're going to get.

Without Balanchine present to coach his own works, and with management persistently shutting out several key Balanchine dancers who might pass on some of the master's intentions, it's inevitable that the performance of the choreography should have eroded. This deterioration is most visible today in the rote aspect evident even in the best stagings. Instead of moving with a spontaneity sprung from understanding and responding acutely to the musical impulse central to Balanchine's choreography, the dancers seem to be doing -- dutifully, even with alacrity -- just what they've been told to do.

Further, as always happens when groundbreaking works age, their most singular and unconventional aspects get smoothed over, evened out. The dynamics of the movement loses its crucial variety; intentional disjunctiveness disappears; gradations of light and shade give way to a single tone; the astonishing becomes business-as-usual. In works like The Four Temperaments and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, gestures and phrases that formerly looked eccentric or grotesque -- but in possession of their own physical logic and immense visceral and emotional meaning -- are now blank, unthreatening, simply another item on the list of things to do. At the same time, material that is lyrical and touching gets sentimentalized. When Balanchine chose to be sentimental (in Meditation, for instance, and in passages of Don Quixote), he was extravagantly, baroquely so; when tenderness and lyricism governed his mood, his poetry was so pure, it was well-nigh objective.

True, a few individual dancers -- Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Peter Boal -- are sufficiently intelligent and intuitive to make the choreography read true without much guidance. But they are veterans who knew the repertory when it was still governed by Balanchine's genius. One wishes that the wunderkinder of the next generation -- Isabel Kimmel, Sebastien Marcovici, Benjamin Millepied, Jennie Somogyi, to name just a few corps de ballet standouts -- had the opportunity to develop under similar circumstances.

One of the great ironies of today's performances is that the unison work has improved. This sort of discipline might interest Mayor Giuliani, but Balanchine never cared much about Rockettes-style unison, which is a mechanical phenomenon. When he assigned a group of dancers to execute the same material, as is often the case in corps de ballet work, he opted -- more subtly -- for a common musical accord. Women presented by Balanchine in a cluster were not expected to have their limbs arranged at exactly the same angle, but rather to give the effect of a bunch of wild flowers contained in a vase, each, within limits, allowed an individual range of posture. Those responsible for keeping Balanchine vibrant at the New York City Ballet might well consider the naturalness and beauty of that vision.

One of the lushest talents to emerge at the New York City Ballet in the past decade was Jenifer Ringer. Yet after being promoted to soloist level and showing promise of attaining principal rank, she began to appear infrequently, then not at all, and eventually vanished from the company's roster. An injury that sidelined her for a time was part of the problem, but rumor had it -- and sightings supported the idea -- that the basic problem was excess weight in an era that likes its ballerinas super-slim, often to a visually grotesque and dangerously unhealthful degree. (Ironically, the NYCB women are, as a group, more zaftig this season than I've ever seen them.)

At any rate, Ringer resurfaced this spring as the heroine of Francis Patrelle's Romeo and Juliet, danced by the choreographer's chamber-size company at the Kaye Playhouse. Though the weight problem has by no means been solved, it hasn't much diminished Ringer's dancing, in which technical brilliance is supported by fluent musicality and theatrical vivacity. She needs (and deserves) a larger stage and first-class choreography, which means a company far grander than Dances . . . Patrelle. To acquire such a home, she'll have to find the happy medium between skeletal and rather more than pleasingly plump -- no simple matter. True, the gods being generous, life is full of wasted gifts, and one must learn to accept that state of affairs. Once you've seen Ringer in motion, though, you're reluctant to abandon the idea of a glorious career for her, because her dancing persuades you that life is joyous and thrilling.


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