Balanchine is a few steps ahead

Among long-time fans of the New York City Ballet, there is a favorite maxim: Eventually, one grows to like everything George Balanchine does. This doesn't mean that everything he choreographs for the New York City Ballet is a masterpiece. It implies that many ballets have settling-in periods, that their intent becomes clearer as the seasons roll by, and that, quite simply and remarkably, Balanchine is often a few steps ahead of the audience.

The maxim may well apply to Balanchine's "Ballade," which is the first of several new works to enter the City Ballet during its season at the New York State Theater, which runs until June 29. At first viewing "Ballade" is obviously a pretty and delicate exploration of both romantic love and technical virtuosity. That "Ballade" is so double-stranded may account for much of its enigma. The clue to its mood is the music, Faure's Ballade for Piano and Orchestra. Its quiet, rather dreamy atmosphere is beautifully evoked by Balanchine in lilting running dances for Merrill Ashley and skimming lifts for her and Ib Andersen. There are also suggestions of a love story -- hesitant meetings and a wistful farewell as Andersen and Ashley float off the stage in opposite directions.

At the same time, Balanchine punctuates Faure's pastel hues with brilliant variations for the leads, backed up by a small ensemble of girls. It is no exaggeration to say that Ashley is the foremost technician in the world. Accordingly, Balanchine has found new ways to exploit Ashley's astonishing speed and dexterity by sprinkling her dances with unexpected hesitations and darts forward, novel jumps on pointe, and turns as intricate as Chinese puzzles. Andersen, too, gets taxing and long series of jumps. His challenge is to make intricacy seem flowing.

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