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Jack Anderson

NYC Ballet: Two Diamonds

New York City Ballet
April 25-June 25, 2006
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., $30-$86
New York State Theater, Lincoln Center
Tickets: (212) 721-6500 or www.nycballet.com
Reviewed by Jack Anderson May 5, 2006

The New York City Ballet has opened its sixth Diamond Project festival of premieres by international choreographers. This one's first two offerings included intriguing pieces by Mauro Bigonzetti, from Italy, and New York's Eliot Feld. Just mentioning Feld's name can make some balletgoers furrow their brows, for he can be an exasperating choreographer. Yet Feld may also be an essential one.

Since his choreographic debut in 1967, his career has taken many creative twists and turns. There have been lush lyrical pieces, sassy jazzy ones, and puzzling conceptual ones. His sweet ballets can grow mushy, his peppy ones can turn messy. He organizes new companies, then disbands them. And as soon as he attracts one group of admirers, he can alienate those fans with newer ballets they consider unfathomable aberrations.

But all this helps explain why Feld may be necessary to American dance today. His achievements, and his failures, too, provide evidence that ballet need not be bound by aesthetic preconceptions: it is an art that should remain always open, something that certainly should be pondered by the New York City Ballet, which sometimes acts as if it needs a Balanchine precedent for everything it attempts.

At the New York State Theater, Feld presented not one premiere, but two, both part of a whole evening by him that briefly summarized his career.

First came "Intermezzo No. 1," a piano ballet for six dancers to Brahms choreographed in June 1969, only a month after "Dances at a Gathering," Jerome Robbins's great piano ballet to Chopin. Dewy-eyed romanticism was in the air back then, and Robbins and Feld helped make piano ballets popular. This production was performed with delicacy, as if the space through which everyone passed were glass that might shatter at the slightest misstep. But Allen Lee Hughes's lighting, which should have been seductively low, was sometimes merely drab instead.

"Intermezzo" has always been admired. Yet I preferred "The Unanswered Question," created for the New York City Ballet in 1988. This fantasy either beguiles or exasperates for the way its dancers move with great concentration through enigmatic episodes: people appear to be permanently glued to a large drum and an even larger sousaphone, they ride around on an old-fashioned bicycle, Maria Kowroski rises from and then descends head downward into a trapdoor, and Charles Askegard and his sousaphone ascend weightlessly to heaven.

The dancers occasionally appear to be questing with aspiration; then, again, they could be engaged in melancholy musing. The quaint props conjure up a sense of times past, and the choreography makes the cast seem haunted by fragments of memories. Like much effective Surrealist art, "The Unanswered Question" evokes emotional states that are simultaneously inexplicable and powerful.

The other ballets, including the new ones, were studies in patterning. Feld in recent years has loved to treat dancers like figures in mathematical diagrams. In "Étoile Polaire," his premiere to Philip Glass, Kaitlyn Gilliland, a tall young dancer, stretched her very long arms and legs through intricate twists and turns. She does not yet have the commanding stage presence this solo ideally requires. But her talent looks genuine.

In "Ugha Bugha," the other new solo, Wu-Kang Chen, a guest dancer from Feld's own Ballet Tech, bounced about with cans attached to his costume, their rattling providing choreographic counterpoint to John Cage's percussion score, played by So Percussion.

Two ballets from 2004 featured ensemble patterning. Three men climbed a wall in "Backchat." And five insouciant dancers went up and down a small staircase in "A Stair Dance;" the punning title was certainly intentional.

Like works by certain so-called "downtown" choreographers, these dances stressed patterned physical activity for its own sake. But whereas some creators of such pieces seek to display, or even exaggerate, effort, Feld makes effort look like fun, as if he subscribes to the idea, long prevalent in classical ballet, that great art should conceal art. Feld's minimalism is jaunty.

Bigonzett's new "In Vento" provided sustained moodiness, for it was one of those sensitive-young-man ballets of which many choreographers are so fond. Fortunately, this was an interesting example of the genre. Bigonzetti made Benjamin Millepied his sensitive youth, lost in turbulent, but never violent, thoughts, presumably personified by figures emerging from the darkness to surround him. There were some particularly striking episodes when people crossed the stage in human chains. An equally effective moment came when everyone broke apart to stand motionless like statues in a sculpture garden.

At odd times, Millepied, who presumably should have dominated the entire ballet, got swallowed up by the ensemble action and focus was lost. Yet the choreographic wind that blew through "In Vento" always traversed strange new territories in a manner roughly comparable to the Surrealism of "The Unanswered Question." The ballet's mysteries were enhanced by a commissioned score by Bruno Moretti filled with ominous tremolos and insidious melodic fragments that remained ever intense, yet never clamorous.

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