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Diamond Dogs

New works from the City Ballet's Diamond Project suggest that its money might be better spent; Trisha Brown succeeds despite a tin ear.

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Ray of light: Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard in Helgi Tomasson's Prism.  

Trivia quiz: how many ballets -- name two, or even one -- choreographed for the New York City Ballet's ongoing Diamond Project have become repertory staples because of their undeniable beauty, craft, originality, and poetic power? The Diamond Project, begun in 1992 to generate new work for a company that prides itself on being cutting-edge, is now in its fourth cycle. The program for the current season's gala evening comprised the first four of nine projected commissions. Two of these were by the company's main man, Peter Martins; one by the 26-year-old Christopher Wheeldon, by consensus the fair-haired boy in the emerging-choreographer category; and one by Helgi Tomasson, the memorable NYCB principal dancer who now heads the San Francisco Ballet, where he choreographs nonstop.

Martins's two short ballets, both to John Adams music, are unabashed make-work. In Slonimsky's Earbox, five couples romp around with mindless but electrified energy. The Easter-egg tints of their practice clothes indicate an aspiration to cuteness ill-sorted with the derring-do. Damian Woetzel, clad in fire-engine red to match his technical sizzle, is the mainspring of this pointless activity machine. Todo Buenos Aires offers a pair of two-guys-and-a-gal trios that refer to the tango and flamenco -- or is it bullfighting? -- as if these were so many banal tourist attractions. Albert Evans, that born creature of the stage, manages one or two emotion-charged moments here despite the slackness of his material.

Wheeldon's contribution, Mercurial Manoeuvres, pretends to complement the edgy vitality of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. Like every other Wheeldon effort I've seen, it strikes me as the performance of an insufferable schoolboy congratulating himself on how he can produce, superbly, just what is expected of him on a given occasion. Wheeldon commands a certain suave craft, but there's nothing behind it. That absence of authentic impulse is revealed, too, in his failure to create contexts that might give new meaning to the phrases he's incessantly borrowing from his masters: Balanchine, Ashton, and -- not surprisingly -- Peter Martins. Wheeldon's work is choreography at its most synthetic, and there's definitely a market for it.

Tomasson's Prism is the most worthwhile of the new creations. Set to Beethoven's Concerto No. 1 for piano and orchestra, it's one of those ambitious affairs that revel in the rich resources of the classical vocabulary and the challenge of manipulating lots of people coherently -- even eloquently -- through kaleidoscopic permutations in a grand-scale space. The first movement features Jenifer Ringer, all juicy vivacity, with a pair of male comrades and an ensemble deployed to underline the trio motif. The second section is a grave, remarkably spare, and deeply sensuous adagio for Maria Kowroski, the Suzanne Farrell de nos jours, partnered by Charles Askegard. Their relationship is tenderly echoed by seven other couples, half hidden in shadow, who gradually slip away, granting intimacy the privacy it demands. Benjamin Millepied leads the closing segment, executing feats of mercurial virtuosity, as king of a carnival celebrating the joy of motion.

Everything Tomasson does is blessedly musical, deft in concept, and agreeable in its effect -- and yet so tightly reined in and so scrupulously and relentlessly tasteful, you feel both stifled and cheated.

In addition to being the leading sponsor of the Diamond Project, the Irene Diamond Fund has now committed major support to the founding of the New York Choreographic Institute, to be associated with the NYCB. The institute will provide selected choreographers -- some seasoned, some newish to the game -- with the resources necessary to their work: accomplished dancers and rehearsal space and time. In theory, this is a fine idea. However, choreographers of real worth being so few and far between, why not admit we're in a fallow period and direct attention and money to a better bet? How about a project to protect the Balanchine repertory? Some will maintain that the company's very existence is dedicated to this purpose. Look at the current performances of Balanchine, though, where so much is blurred, careless, askew, and you have to concede that the mission is not being accomplished. By the way, the answer to the trivia quiz is, arguably, None.

The more I see of Trisha Brown's choreography, the more I admire its keen intelligence, its sly wit, its moments of sheer, unexpected beauty. Yet the more I see of it, as in her company's recent run at the Joyce, the more I'm discouraged by its lack of musicality.

Brown's gifts are essentially for the conceptual and the visual. Her refreshingly iconoclastic work of the sixties and seventies, central to the evolution of postmodern dance, scorned the use of music, traditionally considered a partner upon which dance was dependent. Later, when Brown permitted her choreography to make alliances with sister arts, the most effective matches were with visual artists: Robert Rauschenberg for the 1979 Glacial Decoy; Donald Judd for the 1987 Newark.

When Brown eventually explored classical music, her M.O., set to Bach's Musical Offering, managed only an uneasy, unenlightening relationship to the exquisitely complex score. While her staging of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (seen at the Joyce in a scaled-down dancers-only, no-scenic-wonders version, Canto/Pianto) is one of her finest achievements, it succeeded largely because of its astute invention and its ravishing images; its use of the music was essentially atmospheric. Brown has now embarked on a "trilogy" of dances to jazz, the first two with scores by Dave Douglas. Five Part Weather Invention, created last year, tries to be colorful and lighthearted but is essentially arch and empty. The new Rapture to Leon James, celebrating the lindy-hoppers of the late thirties who held forth in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, is more appealing -- partly because Brown seizes something of the ambience of that fabulous vernacular dancing and partly because she deconstructs it in her own affectionate, maverick way. But the piece remains obdurately unmusical; given its subject, this is a flaw that can't be overlooked.


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