NEW YORK — BRONISLAVA NIJINSKA'S choreographic reputation is based on two splendid works, made within a year of one another for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Because ``Les Noces'' (1923) and ``Les Biches'' (1924) are virtually the only ballets of hers that survive, critics and historians continue to wonder whether they were the fortuitously preserved vestiges of a closetful of treasures, or if they're just the trinkets from an otherwise dowdy wardrobe. Dance Theatre of Harlem [see interview with company founder at right], celebrating its 20th anniversary season at City Center, presented both ballets, plus another Nijinska work, ``Rondo Capriccioso'' (1952). The choreographer's daughter, Irina Nijinska, staged all three works, assisted by Howard Sayette for ``Les Noces'' and Rosella Hightower for ``Rondo.''
Set to music of Camille Saint-Saens, ``Rondo Capriccioso'' is basically a pas de deux in an all-purpose exotic style, for a Bird of Paradise and a Prince, Stephanie Dabney and Ronald Perry, framed by Two Hunters, danced by Dean Anderson, and Marck Waymmann.
The Prince, dressed in shocking pink, stalks the ballerina, who wears a lavender bodice and a tutu and bathing cap made of white feathers. She leaps slowly away from him while checking to see that he's not too far behind. Eventually he catches her, of course, and arranges her in a variety of lifts, the hardest of which are delegated to the Hunters. The higher she's hoisted, the more surprised she looks and the faster she flutters her hands. When the Hunters aren't otherwise occupied, they ripple a long orange cloth to float over and behind the couple's most decorative effects, and in one deft maneuver they drape it over the ballerina's extended leg in the final lift, just as the Prince throws her completely upside down over his shoulder.
From the initial moments of the piece, when the Prince spied on the Bird of Paradise by sticking his head out between the two Hunters as if they were bushes, I thought it was a spoof. Its clich'es and decadent devices are cribbed from a dozen late 19th-century/early 20th-century showpieces, which filled up the idle moments in every ballet company's repertory for all the years of Nijinska's career. The audience at the first performance, however, didn't emit a giggle, even though Dabney intermittently signalled that it was supposed to. Maybe the humor was more apparent to people who have seen Dabney and Perry play the same roles straight in ``Firebird''; the contrasts made the double-entendre funnier.
Dance humor is an intriguing subject. With Bronislava Nijinska it's even more elusive than usual, because she had a subtle wit, often characterized as ``feminine'' in the male-dominated world of Diaghilev, and because she could count on her sophisticated audience to recognize her sly allusions.
``Les Biches'' (Poulenc) is the most mysterious ballet I've ever seen - a strange cocktail party where the women outnumber the men five to one, where the three male guests are brawny types dressed as if they've come straight from the gym, and where the guests play boisterous games with a large, moveable sofa.
There are some half-hearted flirtations and some more serious ones. Two girls in gray (Kellye Gordon and Erika Lambe) do a close-harmony duet that culminates in a surprised kiss. One of the athletes (Eddie J. Shellman) is attracted to an androgynous creature (Virginia Johnson) in a blue velvet tunic and white gloves. The Hostess, draped in pearls, commandeers both of the other two men. One of the most remarkable things about ``Les Biches'' is that it's all dancing, no miming or trademark gestures to build characters or plot. The Dance Theatre's corps looked wonderfully vain and sensuous, promenading on their pointes, shoulders swaying with their hands angling out at the hips.
Francesca Harper was terrific in the Hostess's allegro variation; for some reason she doesn't make an appearance till late in the party, and her bubbling solo gives the whole ballet a second wind. Virginia Johnson was opaque, remote, as the Girl in Blue, bour'eeing sideways and shielding her face with one flat hand. But Shellman and his cohorts, Marck Waymmann and Robert Garland, continually muffed the air turns designed to make the athletes so irresistible.
``Les Noces'' is a masterpiece of massed designs and rhythms, a theatricalized version of a Russian peasant wedding. What Nijinska celebrates is a ritual of continuance and community that supersedes individual, romantic choice. The company looked a bit unsure of the music's fiendish meters at first but then locked into its massive, implacable logic.