Friday, February 27, 2004

When George Balanchine came to this country in 1933 at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein to form a ballet company, it took him 15 years to reach that goal. During those intervening 15 years, the country survived the Great Depression and World War II. Mr. Balanchine, on the other hand, survived by mounting brief-lived companies and creating dances for Broadway and Hollywood, plus a brief fling at making ballets for the Metropolitan Opera.

The debut of the NYCB in 1948 was arguably the most important single event in the history of 20th-century dance. Mr. Balanchine, with a company at last, unleashed a stream of masterpieces, and New York City became recognized as the dance capital of the world.

The company, now under the direction of Peter Martins, arrives here next week after a 17-year absence, with seven of those masterworks.

The reason for the hiatus: Both the Kennedy Center and NYCB had binding contracts with their musicians. Paying two orchestras while one stood idle clearly was an impossible financial hurdle. The Gordian knot was cut last year, when the two orchestras agreed they would divide their playing time through rotations over the years when NYCB performed here.

During this year’s engagement, the Kennedy Center Opera House orchestra will be in the pit.

The programming this first season is focused entirely on Mr. Balanchine — not a bad choice at any time, but an especially inspired one in a year that celebrates the centennial of the great choreographer’s birth.

The ballets show Mr. Balanchine at his grandest and most classical. Surprisingly, all except one — the full-length “Jewels” — were created early in his career. It’s astounding to realize that he had produced most of the riches we will see next week before he even had a company to call his own.

Three of the ballets were staged for foreign companies. “Apollo” (1928), the oldest Balanchine ballet still extant, was made for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and began the choreographer’s long collaboration with Igor Stravinsky.

“Prodigal Son,” a dramatic, even daring, retelling of the biblical story, with striking scenery by Georges Rouault, was created the following year for the same company just before Diaghilev’s death.

“Symphony in C,” originally called “Le Palais de Cristal,” by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, is an inspired celebration of classical dancing in all its glorious diversity with dazzlingly quick sections and a slow movement of haunting beauty.

The other three one-act ballets scheduled for next week’s performances were made in this country during Mr. Balanchine’s nomadic life before the NYCB. It’s hard to believe that “Serenade,” set to the music of Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade in C, Op. 48,” was created out of the unpromising clay of the poorly trained dancers Mr. Balanchine had to work with when he arrived here. Yet even with callow students as the first performers, he managed to create one of the most beautiful — and ubiquitous — works in the ballet repertoire.

Both “Concerto Barocco” and “Ballet Imperial,” later re-named Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, were made for American Ballet Caravan, a company assembled for a South American tour. The tour lasted just five months, but the ballets continue to resonate more than six decades later.

“Concerto Barocco,” set to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, meets the composer’s soaring clarity with a pure dance response that matches the music’s long singing lines. “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” pays tribute to Mr. Balanchine’s artistic roots in St. Petersburg with its challenging technical and artistic demands.

The only ballet next week created for the NYCB, the full-length “Jewels,” has been described as the first full-length abstract ballet. It’s true that it has no plot. It is suffused with emotion and dramatic encounters, though — the haunting first section, “Emeralds”; the music of Gabriel Faure; the jazzy steet smarts of “Rubies,” set to a Stravinsky score; the lushly romantic “Diamonds” section, featuring the music of Tchaikovsky, one of Mr. Balanchine’s musical soul mates, in the breathless central pas de deux.

The repertoire choices the company is bringing have a touch of serendipity to them. These are works the ensemble has just been dancing in its New York winter season, concluding this weekend.

The emphasis on early works shows us Mr. Balanchine during a period when he was trying to exhibit his different vision of dance. With the advent of his new company, he faced the challenge of attracting larger audiences, and many of his crowd-pleasing works came in that later period — ballets such as “Western Symphony,” “Who Cares” and “Stars and Stripes.” He was always mindful that he was an entertainer as well as an artist.

When I first met George Balanchine, in the late ‘50s, he had been NYCB’s director — or “ballet master,” as he preferred to be called — for a decade.

He still didn’t take his improved situation for granted, though. He told me that he refused any salary from the company, living on what he earned from the royalties on his works danced abroad.

“I make about what a New York City cop makes,” Mr. Balanchine said. Then his often impassive face lit up, and he added with emphasis, “But I have a ballet company.”

And what a ballet company.

WHAT: New York City Ballet in three George Balanchine programs

WHEN: Wednesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $45 to $110

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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