To take a long look at Igor Stravinsky, one should have been at the Kennedy Center last night. Three of New York City Ballet's choreographers had listened to his music, and they saw a dimension that even the bounciest conductor on the podium has not conveyed. The energy, economy and elegance of Stravinsky's opus can become apparent by playing the scores. But music making was neither elemental for the composer nor divine. He considered it a human activity, and nothing makes this as clear as seeing the human shape moving in the measured way of ballet choreography.
In sum, all of the dances gave scope to Stravinsky's spiky precision and supple spinning of timbres (with the company continuing to give an unparalleled season). But the program began with a work that was just promises. John Taras' concept for "Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments" is highly charged. There is a group so busy with steps that it has time for no one else. Then there is a couple, Kyra Nichols and Daniel Duell, moving with pillowed step and eyes for each other. Contrast is desirable with this Stravinsky score, but Taras has made two ballets to it whose textures fail to mesh.
Jerome Robbins did the opposite. "Four Chamber Works" is one ballet to five distinct Stravinsky pieces. The setting, a few ropes up high, suggests a circus. The first dancers are the aerialists--innocent acrobats in bright space who walk the line, take balances and jig. The aerialists in the ballet's third movement dance as if there were no net. Danger lurks in every step, and what steps. Robbins had used bodies wholesomely and wholly at the beginning of the work. Here he began to dissect his dancers, while spurring them on to more daring. Merrill Ashley, Sean Lavery and Mel Tomlinson were superb as his figures in this new age of anxiety.
The finale of Robbins' "Chamber" is a lark. Four lads in diapers, cavort like a den of baby acrobats and poke fun at a whole repertory of dance. If only the work's second movement rag had as much dancing as dress-up, Robbins would have won his gamble -- to forge not just one ballet but one musical score from Stravinsky's diverse pieces.
Familiarity with George Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" did not diminish the rich yet ordered, unique but classical, l930-steeped and contemporary choreography. Robert Irving was the evening's conductor.