City Ballet, Balanchine And a Legacy Imperiled

What’s wrong? Why do Balanchine’s ballets grow fainter by the season? Why aren’t City Ballet’s dancers more expressive? Is this an American failing? With the exception of Ethan Stiefel, those terrific A.B.T. boys are all either Latino or Russian, and Mr. Stiefel himself isn’t particularly expressive, he’s just phenomenal. Or is the failure specific to City Ballet? The Balanchine stagings at the annual School of American Ballet workshops still look like Balanchine-they’re stamped by clarity, propulsion, expression through relation to the music, not pasted on as punctuation. But these are not the qualities the company seems to encourage-or maybe it doesn’t know how to.

Apart from the daily papers, almost every serious critic is now calling this spade a spade. Arlene Croce, in the late 80’s, was the first to recognize the impending collapse; since then you’ve been reading about it in The New Yorker (Joan Acocella), New York Magazine (Tobi Tobias), The Wall Street Journal (Robert Greskovic), etc. It was the cause of my own departure from the City Ballet board more than a dozen years ago when I was at The New Yorker -as Peter Martins said to me then, “You’re not only printing Arlene Croce’s pieces, you agree with them.” And he was right.

The most startling event of the recently ended season was the publication in The New York Times ‘ Arts and Leisure section of a long piece entitled “Where Is the Heartbeat in the Balanchine Legacy?” by a new critic (from The New Republic ), Jennifer Homans, who once trained at S.A.B. and has performed professionally. I don’t agree with everything she says, but her conclusion is, I’m afraid, inescapable: To today’s City Ballet dancers, “‘Balanchine’ is this step-driven, one-dimensional form. Occasionally, a dancer struggles to find more, as if she knows something is missing. But she ends up contriving emotion with breathy flourishes and fake ornamentation. The dances, like the dancers, look pretty enough; but we no longer know what they are about.” Ms. Homans can hardly be accused of old-fogey nostalgia-she’s relatively young-nor can she be accused of being part of an anti-Martins cabal: None of the New York critics seems to know her.

What’s startling about her piece is not its point of view-which, as I say, is common these days-but that it directly contradicts The Times ‘ lead critic, Anna Kisselgoff, who for years has been trumpeting the Martins line: At moments The Times , both in its reviews and in its feature journalism, has almost seemed an adjunct of City Ballet’s public-relations department. Who knows whether the powers that be suddenly decided it would be advisable to present a more balanced point of view, or whether the right hand was simply unaware that there was a left hand? As a colleague, I sympathize with Ms. Kisselgoff; a critic shouldn’t be undercut by her editors in this humiliating way. But as a lover of Balanchine, I have to be relieved that The Times is tempering its position.

The problem at City Ballet lies partly in what’s being danced. Not only is there less and less Balanchine on view, but much of what’s replacing him comes from a very different, often antagonistic, aesthetic. Consider this season’s 10th-anniversary Diamond Project. At the Spring Gala, Mr. Martins, speaking from the stage, congratulated the company (and himself) on the fact that previous Projects had produced “almost 40 ballets from almost 20 choreographers.” No acknowledgment of the fact that not one of those 40 ballets was worth preserving-and, indeed, few of them have been preserved. Nevertheless, 15 Diamond oldies were hauled out for airing, only to have their worthlessness confirmed. There were also eight new pieces-but why anatomize them as if they had any artistic validity? Let’s just get them out of the way.

Leading off was Mr. Martins’ emptiest ballet to date (and that’s saying something), Bach Concerto V , whose only possible reason for existing was to bring Darci Kistler onstage (she looked better than it did); and there was a brief Martins duet, The Infernal Machine , for Janie Taylor and Jock Soto, which managed to be frantic, vulgar and dull all at once. There was standard pretentious Eurofare from Italy (Mauro Bigonzetti’s contortionist Vespro -you knew it was serious because the stage was so dark), and there was blandness from Australia’s Stephen Baynes: Twilight Courante , to Handel piano music, an arid Robbins-influenced exercise in the academic mode. There was something homegrown from principal Albert Evans- Haiku , a naïve response to John Cage, and If By Chance , a disappointment from Melissa Barak, the young corps member who gave us a happy surprise with a piece to Telemann in last year’s S.A.B. workshop. This time she tried Shostakovich and didn’t know what to do with him: It was steps, steps, steps and no guiding idea. Miriam Mahdaviani’s In the Mi(d)st set out to extend the classical vocabulary and quickly petered out in confusion.

If any single one of these ballets had just slid into the repertory, who would care? It would have been dismissed out of hand and forgotten. What’s so offensive, so debasing, is the effrontery of lumping all these inferior pieces together as an Event, thereby pretending they have a claim to our attention. Nor is the only issue that this plague of mediocrity was crowding Balanchine off the stage; it’s that the dancers, quite naturally, respond to the alien demands of new choreographers. The company is telling them: Here is where your attention should be focused. But to give yourself to Bigonzetti, Baynes et al. is to turn your back on Balanchine, and it showed in the sterility of so many of the Balanchine performances. If the impulse, conscious or unconscious, is to undermine Balanchine, it’s working. Perhaps it would matter marginally less if there was a choreographer of real stature on hand to replace him, the way Fokine was there when Petipa stepped aside. But if the Diamond Project is anything to go by, there are only midgets.

The one eagerly anticipated premiere was Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses , which used Ligeti’s music, a dark stage, and Wendy Whelan, Alexandra Ansanelli, Jock Soto and Damian Woetzel. Mr. Wheeldon’s excellent ballet last year, Polyphonia , also used Ligeti, a dark stage, and Whelan, Ansanelli and Soto. Whereas Polyphonia was a gloss on Balanchine’s Agon , Morphoses is a gloss on Polyphonia . No doubt Mr. Wheeldon had fun further exploring this material, and Morphoses was certainly the most substantial of the Diamond efforts, but he has been named City Ballet’s resident choreographer, a title that implies responsibility to the company as a whole as well as a certain level of output. Instead, he has been working for other American companies, the Royal Ballet, Broadway-everywhere. The actual resident choreographer is Peter Martins: He makes ballets, whether you like them or not, in response to what he perceives to be the company’s needs; Mr. Wheeldon just drops in. And most of his ballets are small, like everyone else’s-two couples, maybe a small corps. Where are the ballets for the full company? Where are the big ideas? Today it’s all short stories, no novels.

As yet, the idea of a resident choreographer (City Ballet’s first) looks like just another piece of P.R., and an easy one to fund. The Diamond Project is more of the same-a money-raising device and a selling tool, not a response to an artistic vision like Balanchine’s Stravinsky or Ravel or Tchaikovsky festivals. (And what are we to make of a phrase now appearing on official City Ballet communications, which cites George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins as “founding choreographers”? Let me break it to the P.R. people: Jerry Robbins wasn’t on the company’s horizon back in 1948, when City Ballet was founded.)

And then there’s the vexed issue of coaching. In a savage break from the entire historical tradition of ballet, Mr. Martins will not have the great dancers of the past-the ones on whom Balanchine made most of the repertory-helping the current dancers. But ballet has always been handed down from dancer to dancer: Karsavina coached Fonteyn in Firebird ; Fonteyn helped her juniors in turn; Ulanova went on coaching at the Bolshoi practically until she was carted away in her coffin; Balanchine himself had Felia Doubrovska, his original Siren in Prodigal Son , help Yvonne Mounsey learn the role, and when Baryshnikov joined the company, had Edward Villella work with him. In Peter Martins’ Denmark, handing tradition on is a sacred principle. By ignoring it, he’s denying history, common sense, Balanchine and his own past. What psychic turf can he be defending?

And what is history going to think about a company that deliberately turned its back on the opportunity of having, say, Maria Tallchief impart her firsthand knowledge of Firebird and Scotch Symphony ? A very abbreviated list speaks for itself: Villella-“Rubies,” Prodigal Son , A Midsummer Night’s Dream ; Allegra Kent- La Sonnambula , Bugaku ; Suzanne Farrell-“Diamonds,” Chaconne , Mozartiana ; Melissa Hayden- Stars and Stripes ; Patricia McBride- Who Cares? , Harlequinade , “Rubies”; Jacques d’Amboise- Who Cares? , Western Symphony ; Violette Verdy-“Emeralds,” La Source . The loss to the future is incalculable, and criminal.

To appreciate the benefits of superior coaching, only think of the miracles Ms. Farrell has accomplished in Washington with certain City Ballet dancers, or consider how vibrantly Villella’s Miami City Ballet dances Balanchine. It isn’t a matter of reproducing details and mannerisms, but of honoring Balanchine’s principles of vitality and musicality. What we see these days at the State Theater is a shrinking Balanchine repertory, with what’s left leached of energy, spirit and commitment. Divertimento #15 lacks its radiance; Symphony in C its buoyancy; Theme and Variations is dull. Dancers either push too hard or look dispirited; by all accounts, morale is dangerously low. Well, at least the coffers are full. As for the audience that has been developing since Balanchine’s departure-how many are already wondering what all the fuss was about? It happened with the Martha Graham company, it happened at the post-Ashton Royal Ballet. How soon will it be before Peter Martins is being congratulated by ballet newcomers on having replaced that old fuddy-duddy Balanchine with the Bigonzettis and Bayneses of this world?