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The New York City Ballet's Diamond Project is an enormous act of courage. Planned more or less biennially by ballet master in chief Peter Martins and sustained by the Irene Diamond Fund, it showcases a brigade of new ballets during the spring season.

Unlike most companies that restrict new choreographers to modest workshop settings, City Ballet boldly sets them forth on the New York State Theater's spacious stage with sets, costumes and the company's fine musical resources. It's a rare opportunity for choreographers and audiences; perhaps less so for the dancers, who already negotiate a challenging repertoire. For them, the new material to be absorbed may be a little like climbing Mt. Everest on pointe, but what a responsive job they do.

To a degree, however, the Diamond Project has begun to play it safe. With the exception of Robert Garland, resident choreographer of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the season offered no new names.

In Prism by Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet acquired a work with enduring qualities. Its title, while not unusual, is most apt. It filters the early classical style of Beethoven's Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra through a range of tastefully chosen ballet responses. I found the second movement particularly distinctive, as Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard reflected the piano themes (sensitively played by Cameron Grant) while the corps performed upstage in more subdued light. Both revealed the choreographer's honest affection for the music. For the final movement, Tomasson made exuberant use of Benjamin Millepied's lightness and gyroscopic turns. But designer Martin Pakledinaz dressed Millepied in black tights that made him look spindly. The black was also an illogical contrast to the yellow, orange and red dominating the remaining attire.

Christopher d'Amboise is interested in the texture of movement, and his ideas convey a sound kinetic insight. For Triptych, to the Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, there was a touch of the archaic, as the dancers stood in profile or used sturdily simple arm shapes. Wendy Whelan set the tone with her vivid presence. Kristin Sloan, selected from the corps, also manifested a definite presence as she wheeled through the corps on pointe. Albert Evans partnered her and later returned in a sequence of shapes that had the solidity of architecture.

It's amazing that Martins, with all the administrative responsibilities bedeviling his path, could have turned out three new ballets. They included the ambitious Harmonielehre, to equally ambitious music by John Adams. With sets and costumes by Alain Vaes, it was surely the most costly of the projects. I'd like to have been there when Martins explained the action to Vaes. I was vaguely reminded of Massine's allegorical ballets or of mythological events like the turn of the season. In other words, Martins seemed to be aiming for a philosophical substratum not characteristic of his usual cool, athletic ballets.

After an overture of intense, repeated chords, the curtain opened to reveal a backdrop painted in glowing orange and green. The dancers consumed the stage in circular patterns. The swirling energy calmed to the pas de deux for Janie Taylor and Jared Angle, followed by a strong, almost fierce declaration for Adam Hendrickson and Edward Liang. The stage darkened. Had springtime on earth moved to Hades? Jock Soto and Askegard, in long, black dresses, set about maneuvering Darci Kistler in some of the most demanding and unflattering lifts imaginable. Hendrickson and Liang seemed to be bent on rescuing her, but she was ultimately left alone on one knee.

The landscape turned icy. The corps glided back and forth beneath an obtrusion of blue draperies. Ashlee Knapp, recruited from the School of American Ballet, was valiantly toted about by James Fayette. The drapes cleared away to reveal another drop, this one a sort of murky night. As the dancers repeated the opening concentric circles, a final impression sifted through--of a world over-decorated and under-pondered.

To Slonimsky's Earbox, also by Adams, Martins devised a variety of opposing groupings. Dressed in bright colors, the dancers resembled M & Ms as they bobbed about the stage. Then Damian Woetzel, in red, blazed through like a meteor. What excitement it brought. Among the other dancers, Yvonne Borree and Albert Evans were especially stylish, but Woetzel's speed and finesse gave the ballet its spine.

The duende overtones of Astor Piazzolla's music have attracted a variety of contemporary choreographers. This time it was Martins's turn with Todo Buenos Aires, a pair of proficiently constructed pas de trois. They were distinguished by the aristocratic dancing of Whelan and Kowroski, but the passages for the men (Albert Evans and Philip Neal; Nikolaj Hubbe and Nilas Martins) needed further choreographic definition.

Christopher Wheeldon, who has recently been named New York City Ballet's resident choreographer, is still within the realm of potential; but with each work, that potential becomes more defined. The highlight of his Mercurial Manoeuvres, to the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, was a smoothly hewn pas de deux for Miranda, Weese and Jock Soto. Wheeldon is also beginning to create passages that accentuate the strengths of individual dancers. For example, Edward Liang was exciting in a spacious solo.

While Wheeldon concentrates on craftsmanship, Kevin O'Day goes for effect. He pushes the technical envelope, and the result is often more difficult than meaningful. In one section of his Swerve Poems, to John King's interesting score for violins, viola, cello and bass clarinets, women overturned their kneeling partners; a woman walked on her partner; and a man crawled on his. O'Day resolved various sections of Swerve Poems by having dancers jump into an upstage pit or melt into close groupings. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal led the hardworking participants.

Like Wheeldon, Miriam Mahdaviani is beginning to emerge from competence to a personal statement, but she is not yet consistent. The high point of her Appalachia Waltz, a balletic take on country dancing, was a flirtation for Evans and each of the ballet's women. His entrance, as though skipping rope, recalled Todd Bolender's Percussion solo in Robbins's Fanfare, and the use of a hat as a symbol of contact recalled Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, but the sequence of brief dances was deftly constructed. The folklike accompaniment by Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor was played on stage by a violin, cello and double bass combo. I found it a little subdued in style.

Although angelically well-intentioned, Tributary didn't work. It was jointly choreographed by Robert Garland (Dance Theatre of Harlem) and Robert La Fosse (New York City Ballet) to the Mozart Divertimento, K.251. The great joy of the event was having Kyra Nichols lend her quiet radiance to the principal role. She was partnered by Donald Williams of DTH, who treated her with endearing respect. But the ballet as a whole substituted neatness for invention. Tributary headed a program celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded and directed by former New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell. The evening joined dancers from both companies to fine effect.

In Balanchine's Agon, Wendy Whelan and Williams were combined in what turned out to be a deeply felt pas de deux. Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue featured DTH's Caroline Rocher as a sleek and appealing Strip Tease Girl with the incredibly versatile Woetzel as the Hoofer.

Another welcome reference to the early days of New York City Ballet was the revival of Merce Cunningham's Summerspace, with its color-dappled decor and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg and its twitteringmeadow score by Morton Feldman. The ballet is forty-two years old, but like all quality works, looks newly hatched; and it was performed with knowing innocence by Samantha Allen, Michele Gifford, Benjamin Millepied, Jenifer Ringer, Alexander Ritter and Kathleen Tracey.

Balanchine used to say that if you didn't like his choreography at least you could enjoy the music. The season featured a generous number of excellent conductors, but it was always a special joy to see Hugo Fiorato weave his way to the podium. The briskly defined lift of his baton is especially stimulating to the dancers.

If one wanted to view the members of the company not as units in a spatial mosaic, not as curves and arcs and spirals, but as young people with the most exquisite manners in the world, one had only to revisit Martins's Sleeping Beauty, the finale of Balanchine's Vienna Waltzes, or on a smaller scale, his Liebeslieder Walzer. There one could find the glowing heart of the New York City Ballet.
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Title Annotation:Review; New York State Theater, New York, New York
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000

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