The hard part: giving ballets something to say. New York festival offers premi`eres

Although it was intended to do just the opposite, the New York City Ballet's American Music Festival confirmed what a massive choreographic void the death of George Balanchine has caused in classical dance. Premi`eres during the second week of the festival offered dancing galore but not much justification for it. In fact, it's pretty appalling to see how well so many people have learned to make ballets, and how little they have to say with them.

The audience's favorite pieces were William Forsythe's ``Behind the China Dogs'' and Peter Martins's ``The Waltz Project,'' both exploiting the dancers' talents for making kinky shapes, preferably at high speeds.

The Martins piece is based on a collection of short waltzes solicited from fellow composers by Robert Moran. The assembled styles range from Moran's dreamy tribute to Maurice Ravel, based on the second movement of the Piano Concerto in G major, to something from Philip Glass that sounds more like a fandango than a waltz.

Except for the opening and closing sections, the ballet is all duets. Helene Alexopoulos, Diana White, and Melinda Roy successfully imitated rubber women. Lauren Hauser donned purple sneakers at one point and did cute, jittery things with Lindsay Fischer. Jeppe Mydtskov, David Otto, and Peter Frame manhandled their partners efficiently.

Frame and Mydtskov, with Albert Evans and Jeffrey Edwards, formed the beefy half of Forsythe's ballet, while Alexopoulos, Roy, and Lourdes Lopez and Shawn Stevens were the chippies. Here, the costumes (by Forsythe and Barbara Matera) were kinky - d'ecollet'e black tank suits with long black net sleeves and tights for the women, and black tights cut off at mid-thigh with silver vests and no shirts for the men. Four or five large ceramic canines lurked in the background.

Leslie Stuck's commissioned score consisted of rhythmic phrases made from electronically modified sounds - violins, dogs barking, perhaps gongs and rattles from a Chinese opera band. Otherwise, the twist-'n-stretch scenario was similar to Martins's, though Forsythe's deployment of solos, duets, and ensembles throughout the piece was less rigidly predictable.

Ballets like these bring out the hard-line feminist in me, though I don't object to the sexual stereotyping in Balanchine's work. Perhaps it's that there isn't enough going on here to convince me there's a nonsexist reason for women to be skinny, malleable, and willing to be stuck into any undignified posture and put on display.

The alternatives in the festival to this point were sought mainly by the younger, less expert choreographers. Miriam Mahdaviani's ``The Newcomers,'' to the post-romantic ``Rounds for Orchestra,'' by David Diamond, begins with four harmonious couples, all in white. Robert LaFosse, in blue, enters and at first dances the Outsider role. In a quiet interlude, he begins to dance with Melinda Roy.

At this point, the scenario could go in a couple of predictable ways - Roy could be reclaimed by her original partner, or another girl in blue could appear who'd be just the right match for LaFosse. Instead, Mahdaviani keeps them together, adding three other Outsiders later on (Roma Sosenko, Katrina Killian, and Damian Woetzel). Somehow they all get accommodated without clich'e rivalries, and at the last minute one more woman enters.

This is only Mahdaviani's second or third try at choreographing, and I thought she showed a fine sense of form, a healthy respect for the classical language, and a knack for surprise.

Another young company member trying his choreographic wings was Robert Lafosse. ``Woodland Sketches,'' to short impressionistic pieces by Edward MacDowell, shows the influence of Jerome Robbins, whose ballets LaFosse has appeared in since joining the company, and an earlier strain of romantic classicism exemplified by Antony Tudor. The four couples are costumed in 19th-century clothes, and there's a misty backdrop (by David Mitchell) in Monet blues, greens, and lavender. The dance consists of little encounters and expressive solos that show us the dancers' different moods and temperaments.

At least they personalize the women. Stacy Caddell is young and breathless; Valentina Kozlova, older and ecstatic; Stephanie Saland, pensive, possibly depressed; and Darci Kistler, headstrong and potentially mad. I thought they were all wonderful, but the men seemed to have no identities except to partner these exceptional maidens.

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