Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the New York City Ballet plans to present 100 works from its formidable repertory in the course of the winter and spring seasons. This project was launched just after the new year with a week's worth of performances devoted exclusively to Balanchine's most rigorous masterworks. (The series was called "Balanchine Black + White Celebration," after the choreography's minimalist dress.) A more stimulating and exquisite collection of ballets can scarcely be imagined, though it was not Balanchine's custom to program in this manner. Wise in the ways of the theater, he would use excursions into lush Romanticism, scintillating bravura, or sheer fun to offset the neoclassic severity of Agon, Concerto Barocco, and The Four Temperaments or the futuristic impact of Symphony in Three Movements, Episodes, and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. While all of Balanchine's works are characterized by his profound musical and architectural sense, the "leotard ballets," as we used to term them, display the brilliance of his gifts naked, as it were.
I doubt that anyone would dispute the claim that the NYCB is the company best equipped to dance these key ballets in the style -- remarkable for its speed and clarity, to name just two elements -- that Balanchine evolved over the years. Yet today's renditions of the choreography are, in the end, gravely disappointing. Why?
Overall, the dancing is conscientiously schooled, scrupulously careful in its individual segments (the step, even the phrase), but without an overarching sense of the imaginary world, complete with a subliminal drama, that a given ballet embodies. Indeed, the renditions are so placidly matter-of-fact that one wonders if there's anyone at all on the scene -- dancers or ballet masters -- even aware of the universes Balanchine called into being through his choreography. What we're looking at now are facsimiles -- highly polished ones, to be sure, but nonetheless ballets that have, to a significant degree, lost their original impulse.
Other shortcomings stem from the prevailing efficiency-without-inspiration approach. The dancing tends to be bland in its dynamics, unspontaneous, and diminished in energy. Most of the time, the stage picture looks significantly smaller and flatter than it once did, and the experience the ballets yield is far tamer. I regularly question my own impression that this is so, knowing full well that veteran viewers can be obdurately and foolishly nostalgic for past glories as amplified by their own fantasy. And then I see an individual dancer -- Albert Evans, who infallibly ignites the stage with his imagination (he's a man whose every action tells), or the lusty newcomer Jennie Somogyi, who moves as if three dimensions aren't quite enough to contain her -- and I am reminded of what Balanchine dancing once meant. Time was, one left a performance of the New York City Ballet with one's mind and senses stirred, disturbed, sublimely rewarded. Those of us who were fortunate enough and naïve enough to take this repeated experience for granted -- to become addicted to it -- have since learned some tough truths about the ephemeral nature of dance, even in its most prodigious manifestations.
A more specific problem in the NYCB's current productions of Balanchine lies in their casting. When a choreographer creates a ballet, choreography and casting are tightly bonded. The choreographer selects from among the dancers available to him those suited to his vision for the work he's gestating, and the dancing he proceeds to create is informed by those dancers' particular skills and temperaments. (If he doesn't have the dancers he needs, he's likely to modify or abandon his vision; dance-makers may be poets, but they are realists as well.) Rarely is a featured dancer "wrong" for a role designed on him or her. When, as is inevitable, a ballet worth preserving must be recast, no dancer is entirely right for any of its principal roles. If a performer is the same type as the one he's succeeding, the results are at best satisfying. Miranda Weese, for instance, regularly does a creditable job in allegro roles that require confident, precise technique and unfussy presentation. A dancer of extraordinary gifts who is quite different from the role's originator may offer a marvelous interpretation that reveals latent dimensions in the choreography; Suzanne Farrell managed this feat again and again.
Too often, the New York City Ballet under Peter Martins's leadership provides neither of these acceptable options -- options that not only ensure gratifying performances today but also help to keep an exemplary dance alive for posterity. (A ballet that is not rightly understood by being astutely cast is already moribund.) For some time now -- the "Black + White" occasion simply trained a spotlight on a chronic failing -- the NYCB's casting of important ballets has gone carelessly or defiantly against the original type without bringing into being luminous new, yet clearly valid, interpretations. This regrettable state of affairs is linked to inadequate coaching in specific roles and, more generally, to insufficient development and support of burgeoning talent -- but these issues constitute a story for another occasion.
Meanwhile, essential distinctions, such as the one between the nature of the two duets at the heart of Stravinsky Violin Concerto, are ignored, so that this exhilarating ballet no longer possesses the striking contrast it once offered between the grotesque and the poetic aspects of erotic communication. Similarly, the two main women's roles in Agon -- the cheeky and the sensuous -- have had their personalities reversed, while dancers promoted to principal rank despite limited ability are unfairly (to themselves and their audience) sent out to tackle roles once the property of lions.
The NYCB being the august institution it is, the anniversary season will sail on as an event, suavely guided by marketing-department devices. But if it's to have any significant aesthetic impact, and if the company has any hope of maintaining its onetime primacy as an artistic force, Martins and his policy-making associates must devote themselves to some radical rethinking and action.