Promise and Problems As Centennial Season Opens

Tuesday the 25th was not just the opening night of the New York City Ballet winter season, but also the kick-off gala for “Balanchine 100: The Centennial Celebration.” Yes, the Mayor was on hand, and Mrs. Governor Pataki, and a lot of donors and supporters and board members (I used to be one myself), and the gala benefit committee (co-chairmen Lilly Samuels Tartikoff and Isabella Rossellini), and a good deal of self-congratulation. Also present, Peter Martins assured us from the stage, was the spirit of George Balanchine. (He couldn’t be there in person-he died in 1983.)

How Balanchine is performed is the central issue at City Ballet, and for years now the record has been worse than spotty. Last season, things were looking up-when they weren’t looking grim. Gala night perfectly symbolized both the ups and the downs. Some of the self-congratulation was justified-there were times when the spirit of Mr. B did come through-but there was trouble, too; Bugaku , one of Balanchine’s most singular ballets, which has been lingering on the endangered-species list, may actually now be extinct.

It made sense to open with Serenade , the first ballet Balanchine created in America (in 1934) and one of his greatest. Because it was made on the students of the then-new School of American Ballet, and in certain ways was intended as a learning tool, an experiment that might have seemed gimmicky proved to be both instructive and moving: using students from today’s S.A.B. in the opening movement as the rapt girls whom we first see in first position, one arm raised in aspiration. (It would have been more moving if these wonderful opening moments weren’t being performed these days in almost pitch dark.) The girls, “prepared and rehearsed” by Suki Schorer, did the school and the ballet proud. Even better, the company women who replaced them on stage for the rest of the performance seemed invested in what they were doing. (There have been occasions in recent years when Balanchine’s swirling patterns have looked mechanical and lifeless.) The three principal women, however, presented a problem: namely, why these three? The majestic Kyra Nichols fills her tragic role with nobility and restraint; the recent import, Sofiane Sylve, with her strong attack and easy command, continues to impress as a potential Balanchine dancer, if not one particularly suited to the romantic Serenade ; and Yvonne Borree, as usual, goes through the motions without grasping their import. These three dancers are particularly ill-matched, so that Serenade fragments into three ballets.

Alas, poor Bugaku : It was a sensation back in 1963, with its exotic, erotic atmosphere, its experimental score, its ravishing and daring Karinska costumes, its astonishing performances from Allegra Kent and Edward Villella. Bugaku was a stunning mating ritual, a shocking yet refined sexual exhibition, a brilliantly suggestive commentary on the Japanese psyche and on Japanese art. Villella’s compact and dangerous power, Kent’s delicate sensuality, their deep understanding of Balanchine’s intentions made this unique ballet as disturbing and provocative as anything ever seen on City Ballet’s stage. Today, as performed by Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, it’s a travesty-lacking not only three dimensions but any dimensions. Kistler could never have been right in this role-she’s an all-American, lovable girl who once had a remarkable amplitude of movement. Today, she’s nothing but decoration: little flicks of the wrist and tosses of the head substitute for large-scale dancing. What she does is fussy, it’s empty, it’s desperate. It’s made of paper, not flesh. And for Bugaku , it’s disaster. As for the heroic Jock Soto, he spent a decade hauling Heather Watts around the stage, and then another decade hauling Kistler; why not give him a break and spare him the humiliations of roles (and tight costumes) like these? Or is he doomed, like some kind of balletic Flying Dutchman, to keep going as long as Darci Kistler and Peter Martins, her husband, persist in ignoring her current limitations?

Bugaku may not be one of Balanchine’s greatest works, but it is-or was-remarkable. No one involved in this performance had the faintest idea of what it was about. (Even the music was attenuated.) Could proper coaching have helped? I don’t believe that anyone could have coached Kistler and Soto into a semblance of the real thing, but there are dancers in the company who-coached by Villella and Kent-might approximate it. As we know, though, the great Balanchine dancers of the past are not welcome at City Ballet. The last time I saw Bugaku at Miami City Ballet, Villella’s company, it was recognizable and alive. At Dance Theater of Harlem, it’s vulgarized beyond redemption. At City Ballet, it’s diluted beyond redemption. And perhaps the company knows it: This is the only scheduled performance during the entire Centennial Celebration. I’m afraid it’s bye-bye Bugaku .

And then, as balm, came the best performance of Symphony in C I’ve seen at City Ballet in years-particularly gratifying after the production mounted by the Paris Opera Ballet earlier in the fall, which was carefully staged, earnestly performed and sadly lackluster. (An irony, given that “Bizet,” as everyone calls this masterpiece, began its life there in 1947, as Le Palais de Cristal .) The other night, the corps at the State Theater tore into it; the demis looked happy to be doing their roles instead of patronizing them; the orchestra, under Andrea Quinn, was vivid and alert; and the first three ballerinas were triumphant. We knew that Jennie Somogyi had mastered the difficult first movement, so no surprise there, but Maria Kowroski, after years of sleepwalking through the sublime second movement, has found a measure of depth and meaning in it at last-perhaps her recent experience dancing in Russia has awakened her to the fact that Balanchine ballets are about something.

And somebody has definitely been helping Janie Taylor in the allegro third movement: The talent and energy have been there, but she’s been out of control and out of focus. Suddenly there was focus, clarifying and channeling her technical ability. All she needs now is a smile-or, if she’s smiling, some help in projecting it. Her partner, Benjamin Millepied, is also considerably improved. The two of them even pulled off (sort of) the joyous throws at the top of a series of high lifts-as Millepied propelled Taylor straight up over his head, he flicked his hands from her waist, then caught her a moment later on the way down. That’s the way it used to be done, but it’s hard, and we haven’t seen it very often in recent years; so welcome back, and congratulations to the two of them for their bravery. As for the fourth movement, it has become a kind of orphan; Pascale van Kipnis doesn’t bring anything to it-she’s striking looking, but her dancing is relentlessly bland. The incandescent coda went well, though-Kowroski is not a natural turner, but she gamely kept up, and there are no technical pitfalls here for Somogyi and Taylor or their capable partners. This was a “Bizet” to remember. Now we have to wait for post- Nutcracker January to see whether it or Bugaku is the true harbinger of things to come.