The New York City Ballet's second program at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night was a triptych of extravagant contrasts -- Balanchine's exotic "Bugaku" to start and a rhapsodically epic "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3" to finish, with Peter Martins' recent "Poulenc Sonata" receiving its Washington premiere in between. An ancient Japanese court ceremony on a nuptial theme, a metamorphosis from romantic abandon to classical order, and an inscrutable amorous triangle were its diverse subjects, no less diversely treated in choreographic terms.
Martins, one of the company's two ballet masters-in-chief (the other being Jerome Robbins), has had a terrifically busy choreographic year, working on Broadway with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Song and Dance," and producing six new ballets in addition, including the Poulenc. As Martins has frequently said, though, he's still feeling his way into the craft, and to these eyes "Poulenc Sonata" has the look of a not quite resolved experiment.
Set to Francis Poulenc's 1953 Sonata for Two Pianos, as here staunchly rendered by on-stage pianists Gordon Boelzner and Jerry Zimmerman, it's a pas de trois that suggests, without delineating in realistic detail, a woman torn between two men of opposing temperament. Most of Martins' previous ballets have been essays in movement design, tinged here and there with emotional or dramatic overtones. The drama here, as in last year's ambitious "A Schubertiad," is more overt, if not more explicit.
But Martins' movement invention here, as prolific as it is and as striking in many details, defines no overall dramatic shape -- the whole piece seems to be on one level, with dips now in one direction, now another. The ballet starts and ends with the woman alone, in dejection; she dances first with one man, then the other, then with both, vacillating the while in mood from despair to elation and back. The entire action could be read as interior, as fantasy, and the ballet could be about irresolution. It's not clear, however, at least from a first viewing, and the choreographic web isn't strong enough to entice viewer involvement.
What the piece does do effectively is to display the talents of ballerina Kyra Nichols, one of the company's reigning elite, as it simultaneously extends her interpretive range. We know her as a coolly immaculate technician, beautifully classical in line; "Poulenc Sonata" allows her to give vent to unsuspected reserves of dramatic intensity. Alexandre Proia, formerly with the Boston Ballet, cut an interesting figure as the more outgoing of her two suitors. Jock Soto made his debut as the other, more introspective male, a role originally performed by Christopher d'Amboise. It was an extremely odd performance, secure and polished in execution, but as expressively vacant as a classroom routine -- perhaps he will grow into the part.
Heather Watts was erotically electrifying in "Bugaku," the aura of latent pain she so often evokes intensifying the effect; Bart Cook was her suitably macho partner. "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3," potentially the blockbuster of the evening with its "Theme and Variations" finale, received a respectable but not overly inspired performance; Nichols, substituting for injured Merrill Ashley as the "Theme" ballerina, looked understandably tired after the Martins ballet.