Balanchine's surprise package

The New York City Ballet spring season, which ends June 29 at the New York State Theater, has been fascinating on several accounts. Familiar performers such as Suzanne Farrell and Heather Watts have risen, as it were, to new depths, while newcomer ib Anderson, from the Royay Danish Ballet , has proved a rule by being its exception: He fit right into company style, whereas it usually takes foreigners a few seasons to absorb it.

The repertory had surprises, too, George Balanchine's new "Walpurgisnacht Ballet," which had seemed a mere pleasantry at its first airings, became a sleeper hit. "Orpheus," an important ballet in the 1950s, has been somnambulant in recent revivals until Peter Martins and Karin von Aroldingen breathed fresh conviction into it this season. Perhaps it is possible to capture the past after all, the current "Opheus" implies.

But surely all of these surprises pale in the light of Balanchine's final premiere of the season, "Davidsbundlertanze." First and foremost is the surprise of Balanchine's interest in the stormy romanticism of Robert Schumann. Usually drawn to a more lambent romanticism, Balanchine has taken the bull by the horns in his first dance to Schumann. Not only is "Davidsbundlertanze" overtly dramatic; it is dark and mysterious and at a times an outright puzzler.

Let's start with the decor, by Rouben Per-Arutunian. The backdrop of a barren tree and church shrouded in misty flame is conventional 19th-century iconography, but the way the stage space is enshrouded in white drapery evokes a gothic pressure chamber.

Within this graceful yet oppressive space, four couples dance. Each couple has a specific character, but although there are group dances as well as duets, one can never be quite sure these people know one another.

As the dance progresses one couple emerges as the chief carrier of the story line. He (Adam Luders) is the tormented one. He moves with an odd combination of detachment and muted frenzy. At one point he hallucinates black silhouette figures who stand frozen, huge notebooks in hand. She (Miss von Aroldingen) is the beseeching one. At the end of the ballet she is left weeping as he drifts away into the darkness at the black of the room.

Is he the composer and she the wife? Are the three other couples aspects of their love, aspects of his compositions? Balanchine has often slipped mystery into his ballets, but only in "Davidsbundlertanze" is the element both so calculated and so slippery.

Only in "Davidsbundlertanze" does the effect of mystery misfire somewhat. In the best of Balanchine's atmosphere pieces, content grows out of a very formal, complex dance language. Although there are many very beautiful dance moments in this ballet -- especially the passages for Suzanne Farrell -- the emotional content seems more extraneous than integral to the choreography per se. This is because much of the choreography is thin. One doesn't quite believe all the gestures of love because they are not supported by arabesques and pirouettes -- by the stuff of dance itself. Its emotional tones are frankly stagy at times.

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