Making the past fresh

In these times, when ballet has regained its glamorous connotations, the Russian classics have again become a box- office draw. With their seemingly universal appeal, they nevertheless present tremendous stylistic and interpretive challenges.

The problem is how to reproduce the past without resorting to painting-by-number mentality. How does one make the past fresh, cope with a language that isn't foreign but certainly has a different inflection than contemporary ballet?

These questions arise with the 10th-anniversary season of the Dance Theater of Harlem, whose engagement at the New York City Center through Jan. 27 features new productions of Ivanov's second act of "Swan Lake" and Petipa's "Paquita."

"Swan lake" is easier to pull because it has potent dramatic possibilities and a lyrical style which is nearer to modern sensibility than the brittleness of "Paquita," with its odd mixture of music hall exhibitionism and almost minimalist choreography.

"Swan lake," staged by Frederic Franklin, works because each girl in the corps has been inculcated with a sense of time and place. Although the decor is an abstraction of a lake-side scene, the corps de ballet imparts an immediacy and specificity of action. The slant of their necks and soft droop of their arms speak nocturnal mournfulness. The lightness of their footwork indicates an enchanted place.

The famous entrance of the swans is here so fleet as to make a completely new statement. Merely because of speed and springly attack is the daisy chain of swans transformed from a pretty processional into a dance of liberation from swan to human form. It's tiny details like this that justify one more "Swan Lake." After seeing this passage hundreds of times, one can finally grasp its dramatic implications.

The production emphasizes the ensemble-ness of "Swan Lake." The very fact of making a point of emphasis also validates the classic. Still, there's no way of working around the fact of the Swan Queen, and it's here that all the pitfalls of reconstruction ring loud. Although Lydia Abarca has a beautiful body, she doesn't so much dance as enact a ritual learned second-hand.

The classical technique of "Paquita," staged by Alexandra Danilova and Franklin, is so rigorously presented as to remind one of a remark made by an equally austere choreographer, Martha Graham. "Either the foot is pointed or it is not pointed."

In "Paquita" the foot was sort of pointed.

While the others have a way to go technically, they at least enjoy doing up "Paquita" in Spanish flavor. The spirit is informed even if the muscles aren't. Because of that fully articulated spirit, this "Paquita" makes a lot more sense than it deserves to. Its success in spite of itself is a telling fact about doing the classics: taking a firm position on a work's flavor and theme is as important as taking a firm position on arabesque.

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