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New York City Ballet's Diamond Project: a question of resonance.

It's good news that out of the six commissioned ballets in the third edition of Peter Martins's Diamond Project at New York City Ballet, several were very successful and looked quite different from one another. Mostly set to twentieth-century music, these ballets used the house style least literally, as a base for exploration in different resonant directions. Of the six choreographers, Christopher Wheeldon and Robert La Fosse are current members of the company, Miriam Mahdaviani and Christopher d'Amboise are past ones, and Kevin O'Day has made four previous ballets for the troupe. The Albanian-French modern dance choreographer Angelin Preljocaj was a new arrival. Although there were fewer ballets this year than in earlier Projects, they had large casts. But the same dancers kept reappearing, as in the past.

D'Amboise responded to Philip Glass's haunting Concerto for Violin and Orchestra with a poetic, intense ballet, Circle of Fifths, at whose heart was a magnetized triangle of powerful stage personas: Wendy Whelan, almost goddesslike; Albert Evans, an enigmatic, perhaps slightly ominous force; and Peter Boal, the original architect-measurer of the space and yet a dreamer (sometimes "sleeping" on the floor) and an outsider. With their energies extended and universalized by a corps of eight, the three become force fields, energizing the shadowy spaces around and between them, rather than traveling much themselves. A rising hand draws another body upward. A horizontal arm or leg "pushes" or "pulls" another; the corps does this across the width of the stage. The ritual-like summoning of spatial and energy forces is a vivid depiction of the "virtual powers" that the influential aesthetician Susanne K. Langer considers to be at the center of dance performance.

The atmosphere of mystery in Circle of Fifths is reinforced by rectilinear, precise shapes, hands held like flexed feet, straight legs gesturing like arms. The dancers' legato movements have a rigorous gravity (literal and figurative), never rushed. They carve straight-edge shapes around each other, as if outlining auras.

In a charged duet to the unbroken thread of a poignant and slightly obsessive violin. Whelan and Evans complete each others' shapes. They transform movement motifs by new context: Evans tries to blindfold Whelan with the flat-handed gesture by which Boal had marked off space at the beginning. Boal rises from his dreaming place and echoes first Evans, then Whelan. At the end of the ballet, the force field of Whelan's arabesque promenade crumples Evans to the floor at her feet. With a tendu foot, she traces a circle on the floor around herself and over him, echoing the promenade en tendu with which Boal had opened the ballet. Boal circles her at a distance: an image of three fates inextricably linked.

In a very different vein, Kevin O'Day's Open Strings was set to a commissioned score for electric guitars by jazz experimentalist John King with high energy but almost lyrical moments. The cast of five (the smallest of the new works) suggests a group of friends at the beach, in a club, and back at the beach, using athleticism as relaxed and friendly high spirits. O'Day successfully employs the feel of current popular dances to inflect ballet, without the Twyla Tharp mannerisms of some of his earlier work. There's a "down" feel melded with real ballet vocabulary (even batterie) and accomplished pointe work (virtuoso dips) at a fast pace, with-it but not aggressive. The strong structure includes a chain of duets, each new partner then joined by the next. In a meditative solo. Alexander Ritter seems to be responding to small exclamations from the guitars. Open Strings is a thoroughly contemporary ballet that's also a charmer.

Twenty-three years old and Royal Ballet-trained, corps member Christopher Wheeldon is not afraid to build closely on tradition, making it fresh (witness his recent A Midsummer Night's Dream for Colorado Ballet, drawing intelligently on both Ashton and Balanchine) [see the featured review, May 1997, page 68]. In his new Slavonic Dances, to Antonin Dvorak, he works with the tradition of national dances within ballet. Here he completely balleticizes the proud and spirited style, as with extravagant turns in and out in passe releve, or Monique Meunier's powerful, celebratory extensions and swaggering runs on pointe, or big, masculine, Slav-inflected virtuosity for Peter Boal. Wheeldon's response to music can be subtle, as when a double musical accent is underlined once by heel clicks, then left as counterpoint to legato movement. Deft, fluid handling of large and small groups links dances into suites. The ballet pays timely tribute to Dvorak's (now freed) Czech homeland, with the photographer Josef Sudek's allusive black-and-white shots of Prague as scene-setting projections.

Angelin Preljocaj's La Stravaganza marks a rare appearance of dance-theater at City Ballet, although his characteristic use of dichotomy includes a strong puredance component. At beginning and end, a swaying group of unitard-clad young people suggests an ocean voyage. After their large-scale, unfettered dance full of spring-for-it sissonnes, set to Vivaldi, an ominous second group in early Dutch costume is revealed, performing inwardly focused, robotically busy gestures, industrious and then sensual; incongruously, their costumes look Puritan, but their music is a modern industrial-sounding electronic score by various composers. Along the way the women of the two groups suggest a moment of hope when they combine their two ways of moving into one richer style. But in the end, maybe, the Old World corrupts the New World innocents with sexual appetites and conflicts -- a popular literary idea on both sides of the Atlantic. With its ambiguous interactions and fiery red painted backdrop, La Stravaganza is an intriguing piece.

The remaining two Diamond Project works, although well crafted, were too predictable, with too many -- and familiar -- steps and poses packed in. Miriam Mahdaviani's Urban Dances to Richard Danielpour's eclectic commissioned score hints at honoring the city's many cultures as well as its nervous energy. Robert La Fosse's Concerto in Five Movements, to Prokofiev, has a purposeful-looking but unfocused athletic drive. With fresher resonance, fewer steps would fill the bill. Still, the Diamond Project had a good share of vivid imagery.
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Author:Hunt, Marilyn
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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