"Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," staged as a ballet by the New York City Opera as the bottom half of a double bill with Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," came to us in its Kennedy Center debut last night with a most imposing pedigree-choreography by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins; decor by Rouben Ter-Arutunian; dancing by New York City Ballet principals Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous, and not least, the peripatetic Rudolf Nureyev, appearing for the first time in a role created especially for him by Balanchine.
For a production of such distinguished lineage, however, it hardly seemed worth the bother. The outcome is not only minor, in both substance and manner, but for the most part, ineffectual as well.
If nothing seems to go with anything else in this production, that's because nothing goes with anything else in this production. The whole thing is ostensibly based on the Moliere drama of the same name, originally written as a comedie-ballet , i.e., a play with interpolated music and dance, in 1670. The plot, however, has been considerably truncated and revamped, retaining the romantic episode in which Monsieur Jourdain, the fatuous would-be gentleman of the title, is duped by his daughter's lowborn suitor, Cleonte, into approving the match, but shifting the histrionic spotlight onto Cleonte-the Nur eyev role in this production.
The score, moreover, is by a 19th century composer-Richard Strauss-writing in a pseudo-archaic style; it was never any great musical shakes, and its stylistic disequilibrium works no better in the context of the present ballet. Ter-Arutunian's gray and silver set, of indefinable period, looks like a cross between an art deco hotel lobby and a showroom for rhinestones.
Balanchine's choreography uses academic steps and combinations-there's an engaging pas de sept for the ensemble of dancers from the School of American Ballet, a charming little waltz finale, some virtuoso capers for Nureyev, and best of all, a graciously tongue-in-cheek pas de deux for Nureyev and McBride-plus some fairly broad mime, slapstick and horseplay (or rather, camelplay: a passage in which M. Jourdain is mounted on a beast-of-burden consisting of a rug with dancers underneath). But though it has his customary lucidity and craft, it's doubtful anyone would take this slender material for the work of Balanchine without a program in hand.
That leaves the performers, and each of the artists also seems to be working in a different mode. Nureyev, dancing with greater security and flair than one has seen from him in some time-tossing off clear, twinkling beats and smoothly centered pirouettes and air turns-is constantly playing to the gallery, taking the audience in on the deceptions practiced on M. Jourdain.
McBride, also dancing effervescently as M. Jourdain's daughter, Lucile, plays it straight, almost making a mock-serious passage seem serious-serious. In the mostly mimed part of the bloated, blithering M. Jourdain, Jean-Pierre Bonnefous, giving what is clearly the most finely tuned portrayal, is the only one who looks as though he might have stepped out of Moliere's original entourage.
Balanchine must be fond of the subject-he choregraphed the same score twice before in earlier years, and he also broke his former, seemingly adamant resolve not to work with superstar Nureyev for this production. He took ill during the rehearsals, however, and Robbins was sent in to pinch-hit for a while, after which Mr. B. returned and redid everything according to his own lights. All this may help explain the hybridized look of the final product, but it doesn't lessen the disappointment. CAPTION: Picture, Rudolf Nureyev in "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme"