With opulent sets, euphoric sound and beguiling tales, the ballet can pamper our senses. Add seductive stars to such a concoction in a display of body, virtuosity and personality, and the performance may arouse feelings akin to a catharsis. Last night, the New York City Ballet, for the second program of its current Kennedy Center season, sublimated decor to curtains and lights, used its dancers -- stars like Merrill Ashley or corps members such as Jean Pierre Frohlich -- as individuals in an ensemble, and concentrated its story-telling to a danced commentary on demanding music -- Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variation" and Igor Stravinsky's "Symphony in 3 Movements." The result chellenged the senses and not for an instant did it lull the mind.
Jerome Robbins has choreographed Bach's long keyboard composition in two major but merging sections. As the taller dancers of the second half enter and engage in increasingly serious and intimate duets, one suddenly thinks of them as men and women, and of the first half as a set of games for very bright, almost adult girls and boys.
Throughout the piece, Robbins is constantly leading one to such discoveries about the meaning of stylistic elements and human habits. Thus, "Goldberg" seems both carefully structured and spontaneous. That it is difficult to concentrate on all of it equally may be the viewer's failing.
George Balanchine not only comments on Stravinsky's terse music but creates an entire race of anxious, alert beings. The adagio section with its intimations of tightrope walking, sleepwalking and the Far East, is remarkable for consistency despite the diversity of its imagery. Three pink -- guava pink -- leotards among all the black and white ones are a critical part of this choreography.
The individual and ensemble work of the dancers was of high order. Ashley, a superb technician, was also noble last night in the Rbbins. Sara Leland isn't the clearest of dancers but in the adagio of the Balanchine, with Bart Cook, she had a subtle musical pulse. Adam Luders, Sean Lavery, Victor Castelli and the company's other long-legged danseurs, have become thoroughly spacious -- not just linear -- performers. Gordon Boelzner was the pianist for the Bach ballet and Robert Irving conducted the Stravinsky.