Tchaikovsky Festival: stockpile of masterpieces

Last century there was "Sleeping Beauty," Swan Lake," and "The Nutcracker." Right now a whole slew of Tchaikovsky scores are serving George Balanchine and several of his colleagues at the New York City Ballet. During the 10 days of the City Ballet's Tchaikovsky Festival, some dozen new ballets are being premiered, along with a stockpile of masterpieces from the Balanchine-Tchaikovsky shelf.

What the artistic outcome of this enormous creative endeavor will be is anybody's guess, but there's one thing for sure: Audiences will have experienced the vast range and vitality of the composer someone once described as overloved and underestimated. It is Balanchine's conviction that Tchaikovsky is as relevant to modern ears as, say, Stravinsky. Accordingly, he commissioned from architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee a sleek "Ice Palace" of transparent tubings which serve as decor for Tchaikovsky's lush melodies.

As if to signify that the Tchaikovsky Festival is as much about music as dance, it began with the New York City Ballet Orchestra on the stage rather than in the pit. Led by Robert Irving, they played the Overture from Romeo and Juliet and accompanied a soprano and tenor in arias from Tchaikovsky's famous operas. A duet from a virtually unknown opera, "Undine," was also included -- and, guess what" It's the same melody Tchaikovsky later used for the famous adagio in "Swan Lake." One could hear murmurs of surprise and recognition sweep over the audience. Hearing so familiar a melody in so different a context is an interesting tostle. One looks to the Tchaikovsky Festival for many more stimulating permutations.

One found it, to a certain extent, in the first ballet of the festival, Balanchine's "Mozartiana" to Suite No. 4. A tribute to Tchaikovsky's favorite composer, the score is a fascinating double exposure of sensibility. Despite its buoyant, charming Mozartian base, one always hears a Tchaikovskian melancholy permeating Mozart's. The music is gray-on- white. (Suzanne Farrell's costume, incidentally, is white with an overlay of black.) Balanchine's choreography so oscillates between sunny and somber hues that it's hard at first viewing to get one's bearings.

In a reversal of roles, it's the two men who really carry "Mozartiana's" Italianate cheer, while the females, led by Farrell, carry the weight. Balanchine turns Ib Andersen into Ariel with a breathtaking series of filigree variations. Christopher d'Amboise, in the gigue, is a jester type. The females , including four children from the City Ballet's official academy, the School of American Ballet, comment on the men's dancing rather than enlarge upon it. They are sedately witty. Farrell is the wittiest and wisest of them all, meaning that in her many variations is some secret code intimating mortality.

The two other premieres on the opening program spell youth. Peter Martins' "Capriccio Italien" is in the grand imperial manner, and the cast is composed of advanced students from the School of American Ballet. It's the sight of these students -- grand and accomplished yet young and fresh -- that makes "Capriccio Italien" moving. Jerome Robbins's pas de deux from the First Piano Concerto is a tribute to Darci Kistler, who only last year graduated from the school. This duet shows that a lass of tender years can have powerfully mature legs -- can be , in fact, a ballerina.

The company performs through June 14.

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