If you're Peter Martins, when you hear Stravinsky, 'you gotta dance'
Through many masterpieces by George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet and Igor Stravinsky are practically synonymous. The Balanchine-Stravinsky team is a hard act to follow, and so it is courageous for Peter Martins, a principal dancer with the City Ballet, to have taken on Balanchine's favored composer.Skip to next paragraph
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On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. When you hear Stravinsky, you gotta dance.
The score that set Martins's feet tapping is the Suite from "L'Histoire du Soldat." The resulting ballet premiered on Jan. 29 at the New York State Theater , where the City Ballet is performing. Dispensing with the story, about a soldier's battle with the devil, Martins concentrates on realizing the music's extraordinary rhythmic vitality. Indeed, as you watch the dancers perform, you can easily imagine Martins's mind "tapping" away as he prepared the choreography.
Although this "L'Histoire" incorporates great variety and contrast -- for example, there's a rousing stomp for men, an enigmatic duet for a poet, perhaps, and his ideal woman, and a tough tango duet that ingeniously evolves into a friendly waltz quartet -- the ballet is absolutely permeated with almost spasmodic syncopations. The steps are tight, choppy, and snug to the ground.
Sometimes this close-cropped effect is exhilarating, as when the dancers fly through space in teensy, intricate prances. It's like seeing a little doily suddenly become the main sail of a schooner. But because there is little relief from dense footwork and intense rhythm, "L'Histoire du Soldat" is often claustrophobic. You want to say to the cast, "Be still for a second and come up for air."
What is finally most pleasing about the ballet is not its rhythms, but its thematic ideas. Arching over the four sections is the image of a parade. It begins and ends with one, each distinct in character, and makes intriguingly sideways references to parades throughout. The freedom with which Martins weaves in and out of his imagemaking, the sleight- of-hand with which he'll introduce a motif and pick it up again when you least expect it, gives this ballet elegance. If he'd been more relaxed about metrics, "L'Histoire" would have been a gem. Right now it has gemlike qualities. It gives contradictory impressions and needs to go through the sifter of time to clarify itself.
Just as new ballets benefit from the City Ballet's repertory system, in that they can grow over a long period of time, familiar works can suffer by being taken for granted. Then one day a dancer steps into a ballet for the first time in years, and it all seems new. This happened when Suzanne Farrell danced the sylph in Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony." She changed the whole notion of what a sylph is -- from a fey, fairytale creature to a powerful seductress bound by fate to chastity. Thus her duet with the pursuing men became an incipient tragedy about stymied passion. And when he finally captured her, it was a triumph of her will over fate.
Miss Farrell always gives her dancing a personal twist, but so to radicalize such a stock character as the sylph and make it work profoundly is the mark of a truly great artist. This event slipped casually into the season. No wonder some people like to go to the City Ballet every night! Jose Limon