The New York City Ballet program last night, starting the third and final week of the company's current Kennedy Center engagement, was a testimonial to George Balanchine as choreographic magician -- the presto-change-o artist and master illusionist who conjures up ballets so utterly divergent in manner and feeling that they seem to have originated in different universes.
First up was "Ballo della Regina," to the music of Verdi -- scintillating, featherweight in texture, a bouquet of pyrotechnical flourishes that shows off its principals, soloists and ensemble like gems in a casket. In particular, it's a personal showcase for Merrill Ashley, who uses her legs and feet here as if they were spears and darts, and Robert Weiss, whose steeplechase jumps and turns are his chief stock-in-trade.
Next came "Kammermusik No. 2," a work in which Balanchine seems determined to demonstrate that classical ballet is capable of expressing things quite the opposite of sweetness and light. To its crabbed, dry, nerve-wracking score by Hindemith, as menacing as a tank, the choreographer has fashioned a ballet that is tense, perverse, even scary.
The two lead women (Karin von Aroldingen and Kyra Nichols), tall, fierce and relentless, and their subservient partners (Sean Lavery and Adam Luders) are attended by a "corps de ballet" of eight robotic males who look as if they crawled out of Dr. Caligari's cabinet. The ballet has a kind of ruthless mechanization about it that suggests the chilling utopia of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," and evokes the whole nightmarish atmosphere of German Expressionism (the era of the Hindemith music).
Who can imagine more of a turnabout than the concluding "Vienna Waltzes," that lavishly boxed memento of heartthrob and schmaltz in three-quarter time. The three middle sections -- the picturesque "Voices of Spring," the coarsely jesting "Explosions-Polka," and the sentimental "Merry Widow" sequence -- are skillful diversions. But the beginning and ending -- "Tales of the Vienna Woods" and the "Rosenkavalier" suite -- are masterworks, summing up in their vertiginous spins and gales of careening silk the romantic inebriation of an entire musical century.