Last night's New York City Ballet program at Kennedy Center brought us the Washington premiere of George Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht Ballet," and while it is a comely, entertaining work, and recognizably Balanchinian, it's also decidedly a lesser effort, breaking no new ground and lighting no fires.
The ballet calls for an ensemble of 16 women, plus a lead couple (Suzanne Farrell and Joseph Duell), a demi-soloist (Heather Watts) and two demi-demi and four demi-demi-demi soloists, a lineup that suggest the stratified rankings of the Paris Opera Ballet, which is where the opus originated -- Balanchine created it in 1975 as the inserted divertissement for a production of Gounod's "Faust." Perhaps it's the fact that it was made for a company other than his own that kept Balanchine's inspiration within narrowly circumscribed limits. In any case, though the composition is faultlessly well-groomed in its classical idiom and marked now and again by strikingly inventive passages, particularly for Farrell, the choreography remains -- for Balanchine -- generally unremarkable.
One knows instantly, from the light-hued chiffon of the costumes if nothing else, that this isn't going to be a witches' revel, which is what the opera scenario calls for. Some have taken this as deviosness on Balanchine's part, but the choreographer has done what he always does, i.e., taken the music as his cue. This isn't Goethe's "Faust," or even Boito's, but Gounod's, and the music Gounod wrote for a supposed convocation of demons is about as hellishly orgiastic as "Home on the Range."
So Balanchine has used the comfortably corny, Gallic score as a scaffold for a conventional grand pas de deux, with solo and ensemble interpolations and an odd twist or two: Farrell has a brisk solo full of "male" steps, and the whole thing ends with a ship's prow image that's the most operatic moment of the ballet. The dancing was mostly splendid, Watts, Farrell and Duell making the most of their highlighted passages.
Also on the conventional side, though at once more traditional and more brilliant, is Balanchine's "Cortege Hongrois," his neo-Petip farewell, with music from Glazounov's "Raymonda," to retiring ballerina Melissa Hayden in 1973. It was seen last night with Karin von Aroldingen and Bart Cook leading the "Hungarian" contingent, and Kyra Nichols and Peter Martins heading the classical ensemble. The character dancing was shoddy, particularly in the upper body, an endemic failing of American ballet training. Nichols and Martins danced sturdily, but without much of the spicy temperament the ballet wants.
Also on the program were repeat performances of two Balanchine masterpieces -- "Divertimento from 'Le Baiser de la Fee,'" with Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson, and "Apollo," with Ib Andersen, Heather Watts, Lourdes Lopez and Maria Calegari. Both ballets were expertly accounted for.