NYCB does justice to Balanchine’s best

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After a 17-year absence, the New York City Bal-let made a triumphant return to Washington Wednesday with a sterling program of masterworks by founder-director George Balanchine.

Three ballets by the great choreographer at the top of his form — the romantic sweep of “Serenade,” the nobility and power of “Apollo” and the crystalline designs of “Symphony in C” — set to magnificent scores by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Bizet — made for an unusually splendid evening. The program, to be repeated tonight, is one to cherish for its beauty and grand poetic vision.

The company showed its strength in the large-scale corps de ballet featured in both the windblown “Serenade” and the jewel-like sparkle of “Symphony in C,” which concludes with 48 dancers onstage in a dazzling cascade of unison movement.

Not all the performances captured the full potential of the choreography, but one in particular was magnificent: Peter Boal’s dancing of the title role in “Apollo.”

Mr. Boal has danced this remarkable role here before, with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet (most recently performing the central pas de deux in December), but his thoughtful interpretation seems to deepen every time.

Apollo is one of the greatest male roles ever created, and every male dancer of note has performed it, including Jacques d’Amboise, Edward Villella and the NYCB’s current director, Peter Martins, all of them coached by Mr. Balanchine himself

Mr. Boal joined the company the year Mr. Balanchine died (although he was rehearsed by the choreographer as the Prince in “The Nutcracker” when he was a child), and he has had to find his own way in “Apollo.”

Although it is considered the first neoclassical ballet and is distilled to the point of abstraction, Mr. Boal gives the remarkable dance designs full measure but also brings the most complete dramatic focus to the role I have ever seen.

Everything that happens in the ballet stems from the way Mr. Boal completely inhabits the role of Apollo. We first see him as a headstrong youth eager for experience; his delight in the entrance of the three muses; his playfulness with them and sense of wonder as he watches them offering him their gifts of poetry, mime and dance. Each interaction with them seems done for the first time, with intense spontaneity — the kind of accomplishment a great actor can bring to familiar lines.

In the wrong hands, Apollo can seem dry or hermetic; Mr. Boal made him muscular and vibrantly alive.

In contrast to his focused intensity, the three muses seemed like neophytes. They are relatively new to the company, and their scale of movement is small. In the central role of Terpsichore, Alexandra Ansanelli, a pert, attractive dancer, could not meet Mr. Boal’s grand vision. His inspired reading of the part carried the day, though.

The ever-fresh “Serenade” had zest and energy, but its more romantic and mysterious aspect was obscured by the brisk athletic force of the dancers. The central woman was danced by Darci Kistler. The last ballerina Mr. Balanchine developed, she was first seen here in the early ‘80s and made an immediate splash because Mr. Balanchine had assigned her to dance the coveted lead in “Swan Lake” when she was still in her teens, elevating her above his senior ballerinas.

Injuries have diminished some of the potency of her dancing, but as a pivotal figure in “Serenade,” she is still the most luminous figure onstage.

Yvonne Borree was the second female lead. The third was a young, fresh and extremely promising dancer, Carla Korbes.

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