The New York City Ballet's program at the Kennedy Center Opera House Thursday night was a smashing one all around, buttressed by major choreographic contributions from the company's key triumvirate -- George Balanchine, NYCB cofounder and artistic director, and his cosuccessors Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins.
The evening's big news mainly concerned Martins, whose "Les Gentilhommes," for nine men, with music by Handel and costumes by Alain Vaes, was given its Washington premiere in a performance by the same cast that introduced the work in New York earlier this year.
What the ballet shows is that Martins has been making himself into a choreographer the old-fashioned way, by plugging away at it relentlessly, by devoting himself to it with the painstaking monomania by which someone else might try to master the art and craft of, say, glass blowing.
At age 40, Martins has been making ballets for a decade, passing through stages of apprenticeship and journeymanship under the priceless tutelage of Balanchine, and enjoying the incomparable privilege of being able to treat the dancers of NYCB as lab subjects.
By now, Martins has created 31 ballets and choreographed four musicals as well. That's remarkably prolific by any standard, but especially so for the man also primarily responsible for shepherding NYCB through its taxing post-Balanchine period. As "Les Gentilhommes" shows -- and no less, "Ecstatic Orange" and "Les Petits Riens" (also seen for the first time in Washington during this visit) -- Martins' talent, persistence and zeal are paying off. "Calcium Light Night," his brilliant first opus to music by Ives, had the feeling of an initial lucky strike, and though he did some estimable ballets thereafter, for a long time it seemed as though he'd never again equal his own choreographic debut.
In "Calcium," it was as if Martins, in a flush of inspiration, forgot to be intimidated by precedent, past or immediate, and just blasted ahead as instinct dictated. Many of the works that followed struck one as overly cerebral and careful, or unassumingly academic. In all three of the newer works we've now seen, these drawbacks have been overcome. It's as though Martins is no longer worrying about imitating Balanchine or being compared with him. He's able to trust his own musicality without looking over his shoulder every second. The strongest of the three recent pieces, "Ecstatic Orange," to pungently propulsive music by Michael Torke, reasserts the originality of "Calcium" on a larger structural plan and in bolder strokes. "Les Petits Riens," to an historic Mozart score, demonstrates how Martins is now comfortably able to follow Balanchine's neoclassic example without aping his style.
"Les Gentilhommes," which poses for itself the challenge of making a ballet for men alone, is a kind of counterpoise to the Balanchinean motto: "Ballet is woman." Instead of taking a machismo tack, it puts male specialties like jumps, leg beats and air turns into a context of graciously molded gesture and floor patterns befitting the baroque niceties of Handel. And it exhibits an emerging, distinctive musical sensibility that is Martins' own, not neo-Balanchine or neo-anyone else.
The ballet persuasively puts Gen Horiuchi's lightning-bolt facility in central focus, at the same time showing off the rest of the cast in a cumulative sequence of four duos and three trios. I'm not sure the risky gambit of the finale -- a Horiuchi solo -- quite works, and the French title and fluffy 18th-century style blouses, it seems to me, give a needless impression of dandification. But there's no question this work and its recent companions augur well for Martins' choreographic future. The other splendid dancers in "Les Gentilhommes" were Peter Boal, Carlo Merlo, Jeffrey Edwards, Michael Byars, Damian Woetzel, Richard Marsden, Cornel Crabtree and Rusheng Ying.
Kyra Nichols, Otto Neubert and Melinda Roy led the large "Walpurgisnacht Ballet" cast through its flamboyantly operatic paces with the kind of parade-ground bravura that was Balanchine's purpose here. By contrast, cleaving through the linear eccentricities of his "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," and especially the lyrically astringent slow movements (Arias I and II), Heather Watts, Jock Soto, Lourdes Lopez and Adam Lu ders moved with the meticulous sang-froid of brain surgeons. Concluding the program was a deliciously uproarious performance of Robbins' comic masterpiece, "The Concert"; the wickedly adroit cast was headed by Roy, Carole Divet and Bart Cook.