The centerpiece of the New York City Ballet's three-week American Music Festival was a program of jazz ballets to music by Wynton Marsalis and Duke Ellington. The upbeat news was the vivid playing of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for two of the pieces. The dismal news was all three ballets. Peter Martins's 1993 Jazz, to a score commissioned from Marsalis, is a big, busy piece that knocks itself out trying to prove that classical dance and vernacular music can enjoy a meaningful relationship. Perhaps they can, but Martins is inept as the matchmaker. His choreography fails to lend itself to the shadings, the sultriness, and the spontaneous, colloquial spirit of the music. His response to a score that alternates between the wild and the beguiling is all tight precision and shiny brightness (even in would-be sexy moments), with generic theatrical-jazz gestures applied as surface decoration.
Martins's new venture with Marsalis, Them Twos, strings together five duets that describe, with mind-boggling triteness, the several faces of love: springtime ardor, the love that thrives on hate (disdain, humiliation, even violence -- Martins's specialties when he's in his contemporary mode), and the wraithlike embodiment of remembered or imagined romance (a Balanchine subspecialty that one competes with at one's peril). About half the roles in this lackluster excursion were gravely miscast, and, ironically, not a single one of them encouraged its performer to project an emotional connection to his (or her) partner.
Other choreographers were given their turn in the three movements of Duke! -- Robert La Fosse, an NYCB principal; Garth Fagan, known for his idiosyncratic mix of dance genres; and Susan Stroman, of Broadway fame. La Fosse, the least complex and most ingratiating of the school-of-Balanchine gang, contributed doings of occasional lightweight charm. Fagan's effort -- a vision of night as a time of intense vitality -- was the most original and sophisticated, but would have looked better on his own dancers, who make his typical awkwardnesses appear meaningful. Stroman's job, a variation on the wallflower-makeover theme (virginal aspiring ballerina turns swinger), was so sleek and cute, it gave new meaninglessness to the term classical ballet. I never want to see any of this again.