Taking dance cues from olden times. American Ballet Theater offers new productions

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Always in search of the right image for the times, American Ballet Theater began its spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House (through June 11) with a look back at the olden days. In three of the first week's four new productions, we were wafted back to the Russo-Gallic pomp and display that Americans used to think defined ballet when we didn't have much to say about it for ourselves. The exception, George Balanchine's 1972 ``Stravinsky Violin Concerto,'' was derived from the same high style, with everything scraped off but the dancing. Staged by one of its original dancers at the New York City Ballet, Karin von Aroldingen, the ballet looked severe and demanding, a cathartic ritual, maybe even an ordeal for the dancers. It made me think of how thoroughly Balanchine refocused the idea of dancing, and how his exacting choreography, unadorned in this piece by costumes or scenery, left the dancing completely exposed.

I haven't seen this corps, particularly the men, dig into a ballet so scrupulously in ages, and their clean technique, spacing, and rhythm charged the empty space. Susan Jaffe and Robert Hill danced the romantic pas de deux and Leslie Browne and Ricardo Ricardo Bustamante were the kinkier pair.

The tempos often seemed too slow in ``Stravinsky'' and the other two classical ballets, Balanchine's ``Ballet Imperial'' (1941) and Marius Petipa's Grand Pas Classique, from ``Raymonda'' (1898), and perhaps that's part of Balanchine's reform. In pushing for greater speed and more brilliant technique from his dancers, he made ballets look dramatic all the time. Taken at a relaxed pace, even his ingenious steps can look mundane. This company just isn't used to dancing faster than seems humanly possible, but that's how Balanchine is best. Amanda McKerrow and Wes Chapman didn't seem to inhabit the music in ``Ballet Imperial,'' but Cheryl Yeager with Ethan Brown and John Summers rode it exuberantly.

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The Petipa, excerpted from the full-length ballet by artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov, kept reminding me of Balanchine, too, and suffering by comparison. Balanchine choreographed Glazunov's ``Raymonda'' music at least four times, and each version was more memorable than the rather routine one shown here. Petipa was Balanchine's model for classical virtuosity in the grand style, but Martine van Hamel and Kevin McKenzie - with ironclad, calculated effects and shatterproof smiles - were the kind of overpowering star-egos he set out to eliminate.

In his ``Raymonda Variations,'' for instance, the sub-ballerinas who do the little solos are part of the ensemble, and dance throughout the ballet. In Baryshnikov's interpretation of Petipa, they materialize only to do their own numbers, coming back almost anonymously for the finale. This makes the soloists little more than bit players and throws most of the weight of the ballet on the stars.

All three of these works, though, are a lift for the company, a relief from the lumbering, full-length warhorses that still pack the repertory - coming up this spring are days and days of ``Don Quixote,'' ``The Sleeping Beauty,'' ``Romeo and Juliet,'' ``La Bayad`ere,'' and ``Giselle.'' As Balanchine so effectively proved, dancers get more chance to show what they can do in 40 minutes of plotless dancing than in a whole evening full of standing around.

The company also dug up L'eonide Massine's 1938 ``Ga^it'e Parisienne,'' arguably the most popular of all neo-Russian ballets. Modeled on the one-act formula set by Michel Fokine for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, the work offers romance, virtuosity, pretty girls, laughs, and atmosphere - a Parisian night club of the belle 'epoque. Ballet Theater turned the production over to couturier Christian Lacroix, and I hope he made a tremendous donation to the company because he couldn't buy the kind of publicity it gave to his creations. At ``Ga^it'e's'' gala premi`ere, Lacroix was probably responsible for more of the audience's gaudy outfits than he unveiled onstage.

Perhaps magnetic dance personalities could have overridden the obtrusive design, but Susan Jaffe made a rather charmless Glove Seller; Victor Barbee, her infatuated Baron, was working at his dancing too hard to do more than smile at her sporadically; and Johan Renvall as the daffy Peruvian created by Massine was hyperactive but characterless.

Despite the clashing colors, extravagant fabric, ruffles, towering hats, and costly d'ecor meant to suggest turn-of-the-century Paris, the Peruvian's traditional carpet bags had become soft airplane luggage, there were twinkling electric bulbs on the Eiffel Tower, seen from the window, and the can-can girls whooped and yelled as if they were in an aerobics class.

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