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New York City Ballet's Three-Part Harmony

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page C01

The New York City Ballet danced three vastly different works Friday night as if each were its native language, and with a deeply satisfying variety of tone, content and form, the program felt at once stimulating and harmonious.

It was an experience not likely to be repeated, at least not until City Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center Opera House next year. Because of the unique way it builds its repertoire, this company is one of the few that can offer a perfectly balanced program such as this one -- George Balanchine's gracious "Divertimento No. 15," Christopher Wheeldon's studious "Polyphonia" and Jerome Robbins's swinging "West Side Story Suite." It is the only major ballet company in the world whose works are created in-house.

Dancing with an urban edge: From left, Benjamin Millepied, Nikolaj Hubbe, Jonathan Stafford, Seth Orza and Kyle Froman in "West Side Story Suite." (Copyright Paul Kolnik)

During the nearly 40 years he ran the company, founder George Balanchine produced the bulk of its works, aided by choreographic contributions from Jerome Robbins, a longtime artistic associate, and leading dancer Peter Martins, who now heads the troupe. Balanchine created a style and a look for his company -- stretched-out, up-tempo dancing, with the performers often stripped down to their undershirts and leotards. Works by Robbins and Martins, however different their approaches, use the same dancers, so that Balanchinean preference for length, speed and emphatic technical finesse can be found in their choreography as well. Though each of them -- Balanchine included -- has produced flops, there has been a consistency of approach over the years, so that the core of the repertoire reflects a signature City Ballet aesthetic. The company has not had to grope to find its identity, or throw clashing styles together in the same evening in pursuit of a trend, unlike such other big ballet companies as American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet and even Russia's Kirov.

City Ballet's in-house development team added a new member a few years ago: Wheeldon, the 31-year-old Royal Ballet-schooled choreographer who was a City Ballet soloist before retiring to make dances. Wheeldon is the company's first resident choreographer, meaning he creates an average of two works a year for the troupe. He created "Polyphonia" early in his career -- just five years ago -- when he was toying with how far he could push the stripped-down Balanchine model that had so fascinated him since leaving the Royal for New York.

Wheeldon chose a slew of Gyorgy Ligeti's dissonant, introspective piano works for his experiments with the slopes and angles of his four-couple cast, dressed in eggplant-colored leotards and tights. Mark Stanley's murky lighting and mushroom-gray backdrop gave the effect of seeing the movement through a filter; given the intimate nature of each section, it all felt a bit like a peep show. And what sights there were. Some sections brought to mind studies of geometry and physics, cones and vectors. At other times there was a warmer effect, particularly in the dancing of Alexandra Ansanelli, so petite and tender, and such a technical dominatrix.

Jock Soto manipulated Wendy Whelan's whisper-thin legs as if they were engineering instruments, now calipers, now a compass. At one point he flipped her upside down over his arm, her legs swinging open beyond a 180-degree split. After a beat she retracted herself neatly, completed the somersault and sat up to look at the audience with all the composure of the Queen of England. For all its unraveling of neoclassical form, "Polyphonia" is an elegant work.

There was an elegant sophistication to the whole evening, in fact, though none of the works was dry. Even Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15," which celebrates the courtly manners of classicism, has its moments of wit, where Balanchine makes mischief with the very classical steps he lionizes. The women wear delicate pale yellow tutus, the men are in princely waistcoats. Named for the Mozart score that accompanies it, this ballet is cordial and sunny, like a garden party on the lawn. It demands musicality and speed from its cast, which the corps de ballet couldn't always meet. Blurred footwork among the corps women has been an ongoing problem over the company's engagement here.

Each of the eight soloists, however, soared in this work, particularly Carla Korbes, Janie Taylor and Ashley Bouder, who all seemed lighter than air in hummingbird-swift variations.

After Balanchine's Old World refinement and Wheeldon's modernism, the evening ended with a bang. "West Side Story Suite," a string of dances drawn from Robbins's 1957 Broadway musical and 1960 film about an Americanized Romeo and Juliet, is no mere out-of-context medley.

Graced by minimal but high-impact set design, the seamlessly linked numbers capture the heart of the forbidden-love story, the explosive tensions of the street gangs, the multidimensional characters. It also allows the ballet dancers a deliciously jazzy showbiz outlet, into which they dove with obvious relish. In the Balanchine repertoire, Nikolaj Hubbe is ordinarily cast in regal virtuoso roles, but as Riff, leader of the Jets gang (as he was in the suite's 1995 premiere), he skidded across the stage from end to end in sneakers and jeans and hissed the song "Cool" in a fierce baritone. As Anita, Jenifer Ringer donned a curly gamine wig and shimmied with outrageous snap, but her standout moment was a husky rendition of "America." Who knew the ballerina could belt?

It's a pity the professional musicians were not as distinguished. Under the terms of the agreement that brought City Ballet back to the Kennedy Center after a 17-year absence, the company's orchestra will alternate seasons here with the Opera House Orchestra. Last week, the New York City Ballet Orchestra was in the pit. All three programs were accompanied by spongy, unremarkable and, at certain painful points, flawed performances of what must be its standard fare.

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