By George

Jewel-Like: Alexandra Ansanelli is Dewdrop in The Nutcracker.Photo: Paul Kolnik

The dancers were lumpy and ill-matched, the studio had a massive iron column in the middle of the space, and the Russian choreographer imported at huge expense had to be treated for tuberculosis. It was 1935, and the organization that would become the New York City Ballet was getting off to a bad start. But George Balanchine, no longer coughing up blood, just kept working, calmly pulling and tugging at his unpromising dancers. When the curtain went up that March on Serenade, an image was seared into ballet history: rows of young women, right arms raised on the diagonal and hands tilted, perfectly still and waiting. As one, they opened their feet to first position.

And late last month, another array of young dancers did precisely the same thing, this time to inaugurate the City Ballet’s seasonlong celebration of the centennial of Balanchine’s birth. Why Serenade? Because it’s about beginnings. Balanchine created it on students—they were all he had, since he refused to build a company until he’d established a school. When a student came late to rehearsal, her lateness was choreographed into the piece; when another fell down, the collapse went into the dance as well. In honor of that long-ago cast, Balanchine’s successor Peter Martins had students from the School of American Ballet perform the famous first movement of Serenade wearing short practice tunics, before the company swept in on waves of translucent blue tulle.

So Serenade was a must for opening night this season. But nothing explains the choice of Bugaku, a 1963 experiment in Orientalism that has aged just as badly as you might expect. I suppose it’s possible that the ritualistic mating dance at the center of the piece used to be genuinely erotic, though Jock Soto and Darci Kistler now go at it like a couple of determined spiders. But the little bows, the make- believe fluttering fans, the coyly flexed feet and hands? Please, off to the attic.

Happily, the evening ended in glory when a brilliant cast sailed through Symphony in C, a ballet programmed for the company’s first performance at City Center in 1948. One of the recurring images here, beautifully rendered by Charles Askegard and Maria Kowroski, has the woman curving her arms overhead again and again, as the man stands behind her continually framing her moving arms with his own. Ballet does exist in a frame; it’s an art defined by tradition. Yet again and again Balanchine set ballet in motion, demolishing the very idea of a frame even as he blessed the tradition. Wherever you are on January 22, lift a glass to Mr. B. on his 100th birthday—and thank him for choosing New York.

Twenty years after Serenade, Balanchine created his first evening-length ballet for the NYCB, choosing one that would allow him to place children right at its heart. The Nutcracker shows us exactly what he had in mind when he insisted that a school come first. The children in this ballet have a purpose beyond being adorable: They’re working artists in their training years. Hordes of ardent students dance their way through the first act, often with their elders as role models; in the second act, the elders take over, but they sometimes share the stage with small, perfectly polished assistants. In the cast I saw, Anjellica Fellini and Steven Lobman projected great charm as Marie and Fritz; and Jerimy Rivera, the young prince, was vivid and authoritative in his big mime solo recounting the story of the Nutcracker’s victory over the Mouse King. The Polichinelles, darting from beneath Mother Ginger’s skirt, had the poise of prima ballerinas but more personality. Among the grown-ups, Alexandra Ansanelli’s Dewdrop stood out for her sweet nature and jewel-like clarity; and Peter Boal was a storybook Cavalier, radiating strength and integrity.

By George