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Jack Anderson

New York City Ballet: Winter Season

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater, Lincoln Center
Through February 25, 2007, $95-$30
Tickets: (212) 870-5570 or www.nycballet.com
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, Feb. 7, 2007

The New York City Ballet offered a new work, a revival of an unusual old one, and a new programming policy. In some ways the premiere and the revival were more interesting to ponder than to watch, for each raised questions about balletic esthetics.

This year, NYCB is celebrating the centenary of Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of both the company and its School of American Ballet. Honoring him, Christopher d'Amboise choreographed "Tribute" for a School of American Ballet Workshop and now it has entered the company's repertoire. Set to miscellaneous Bach compositions for solo keyboard and keyboard and orchestra, the amiable work displayed the training, energy, and skill of its young cast. Devin Alberda was especially attractive in an elegant meditative solo. Everyone looked pleasant, however: this was a likeable trifle.

But it offered nothing choreographically distinctive, and it was possible to wonder why company management promoted it out of a student workshop. "Tribute" was simply one of many ballets the company has presented over the years in the style of George Balanchine. Other companies have their own Balanchinesque productions, and they are often genteel abstractions, mild in manner and choreographically predictable.

Sometimes, American ballet choreographers appear to think Balanchine is standing behind them, censoring as well as guiding them. To respect his genius is understandable. But to keep imitating him, consciously or unconsciously, only dilutes ballet as an art. What the New York City Ballet needs are not more works in the manner of Balanchine, but works with a passion distinctly their own.

Jerome Robbins's best ballets certainly had that. Yet his "Dybbuk," which the company revived, is not among them. In fact, it is something of a curiosity. Robbins had long been pondering its theme before he created this work in 1974 to a glowering score by Leonard Bernstein. Although it was not a success, its basic idea continued to haunt Robbins, like some sort of balletic dybbuk, for he kept fussing with the piece, always without success. This revival gives us "Dybbuk" in its original form.

It can be argued that Robbins's choreographic approach was both unusual and wrongheaded. His source was S. Ansky's "The Dybbuk," one of the classics of the Yiddish theater, a strange drama about a young man who, as a dybbuk, takes spiritual possession of his beloved when her father wishes her to marry someone else. In performance, as I know from giving seen it in English, Ansky's play can be powerful and it might well inspire compelling choreography.

But Robbins did something odd with this material. He made it the basis for a ballet that somehow tries to be simultaneously dramatic and abstract. His characterizations are minimal. And episodes in the play serve as pretexts for solo variations and group scenes emphasizing formal movement patterns.

Conceivably, some plays could convincingly become ballets that look both almost abstract and not quite dramatic: "Romeo and Juliet," with its two doomed soloists and its contrasting rival groups, might be one of them. But the unruliness of Ansky's plot probably rules out such a semi-abstract approach.

"Dybbuk" suggests that Robbins was trying to unite two major forms of modern ballet: dance-drama and abstraction. Although he had a great dramatic gift, Robbins was working with a company celebrated for plotless, or abstract, ballets, and it was at a time when some cultural observers argued that abstraction represented the direction art should take in the future. Robbins may have been torn between rival esthetic tendencies.

His ballet shared a program called "Balanchine and Robbins: Masters at Work" along with Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" and a "Serenade," in which Kyra Nichols was especially poignant. This titled program was a sign of a new programming policy. As before, seasons will feature a multitude of ballets. But all will now be presented on fixed bills, each bearing an overall title suggesting its theme or spirit.

The company has said it hopes this policy will promote marketability and help educate audiences. Yet fixed programs might pose problems for fans who may adore one ballet while they loathe another. Who knows how they may react at the box office should those ballets be eternally paired.

The titles of some programs may puzzle, rather than enlighten, audiences. No one could object to "Balanchine and Robbins: Masters at Work." But how much solid information do such titles as "Contemporary Quartet" and "A Banquet of Dance" provide? And a few titles may be debatable. Take "Stravinsky and Balanchine: An Eternal Partnership." That sounds clear enough, appearing to promise an evening of collaborations between composer and choreographer. But of the five ballets on it, only one ("Agon") was a genuine collaboration, whereas Balanchine set the others ("Monumentum Pro Gesualdo," "Movements for Piano and Orchestra," "Duo Concertant," and "Symphony in Three Movements") to existing scores.

We can only wait and see what effects the new policy will have.

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