Through many masterpieces by George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet and Igor Stravinsky are practically synonymous. The Balanchine-Stravinsky team is a hard act to follow, and so it is courageous for Peter Martins, a principal dancer with the City Ballet, to have taken on Balanchine's favored composer.
On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. When you hear Stravinsky, you gotta dance.
The score that set Martins's feet tapping is the Suite from "L'Histoire du Soldat." The resulting ballet premiered on Jan. 29 at the New York State Theater , where the City Ballet is performing. Dispensing with the story, about a soldier's battle with the devil, Martins concentrates on realizing the music's extraordinary rhythmic vitality. Indeed, as you watch the dancers perform, you can easily imagine Martins's mind "tapping" away as he prepared the choreography.
Although this "L'Histoire" incorporates great variety and contrast -- for example, there's a rousing stomp for men, an enigmatic duet for a poet, perhaps, and his ideal woman, and a tough tango duet that ingeniously evolves into a friendly waltz quartet -- the ballet is absolutely permeated with almost spasmodic syncopations. The steps are tight, choppy, and snug to the ground.
Sometimes this close-cropped effect is exhilarating, as when the dancers fly through space in teensy, intricate prances. It's like seeing a little doily suddenly become the main sail of a schooner. But because there is little relief from dense footwork and intense rhythm, "L'Histoire du Soldat" is often claustrophobic. You want to say to the cast, "Be still for a second and come up for air."
What is finally most pleasing about the ballet is not its rhythms, but its thematic ideas. Arching over the four sections is the image of a parade. It begins and ends with one, each distinct in character, and makes intriguingly sideways references to parades throughout. The freedom with which Martins weaves in and out of his imagemaking, the sleight- of-hand with which he'll introduce a motif and pick it up again when you least expect it, gives this ballet elegance. If he'd been more relaxed about metrics, "L'Histoire" would have been a gem. Right now it has gemlike qualities. It gives contradictory impressions and needs to go through the sifter of time to clarify itself.
Just as new ballets benefit from the City Ballet's repertory system, in that they can grow over a long period of time, familiar works can suffer by being taken for granted. Then one day a dancer steps into a ballet for the first time in years, and it all seems new. This happened when Suzanne Farrell danced the sylph in Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony." She changed the whole notion of what a sylph is -- from a fey, fairytale creature to a powerful seductress bound by fate to chastity. Thus her duet with the pursuing men became an incipient tragedy about stymied passion. And when he finally captured her, it was a triumph of her will over fate.
Miss Farrell always gives her dancing a personal twist, but so to radicalize such a stock character as the sylph and make it work profoundly is the mark of a truly great artist. This event slipped casually into the season. No wonder some people like to go to the City Ballet every night! Jose Limon
The Jose Limon Dance Company has been justly congratulated for carrying on after the demise of the choreographer whose name it bears. Yet it becomes increasingly apparent that the group is Limon-based more in spirit than in fact.
Looking at the repertoire for its recent season at the City Center, one sees a solid sprinkling of other choreographers tossed in with the Limon pieces -- works by Limon's mentor, Doris Humphrey; a pantomime-ballet by Miss Humphrey's partner, Charles Weidman. And there are examples of Daniel Nagrin and Murray Louis, who now constitute the senior generation of dancemakers, and new pieces by current members of the Limon troupe.
Diversification is clearly the name of the game, even if it's within the same family more or less. This is a good thing, as it's been apparent that a little Limon goes a longer way than was realized when he was alive and dancing. Furthermore, his repertoire isn't that extensive.
Imagine one's surprise, then, when the troupe announced a New York premiere of a Limon work. "Scherzo" was created in 1955 for the American Dance Festival in Connecticut and then disappeared. Last year a silent film of the dance mysteriously surfaced and now we have a reconstruction of the original dance.
Limon was a big, powerful dancer whose spiritual fervor rendered machismo a trivial afterthought. He didn't need to flex his muscles to show his strength. "Scherzo," a quartet for men, is special in that it illustrates masculinity without being a vulgar display of he-manism. Hazel Johnson's score is percusive and so is the dancing, but there's a playfulness to the way the men leap and slap their thighs. Their torsos are supple and their chests relaxed. As they run and soar in sequence, the pervasive feeling is of taking turns rather than competing.
"Scherzo" loses its spritely energy, however, when a fourth man enters with a big drum. As it gets tossed from one dancer to the next and as each takes turns banging on it, an unconvincing sense of ritual impinges on the action. You don't know if the drum is a sacred object or just a toy tomtom. That confusion undermines whatever dignity "Scherzo" had been building to. And it drags the dance out. Cut in half, however, "Scherzo" would be a pungent slice of Limon.
Solo dancers often lack the institutional means by which to preserve and present their work, yet going it alone is a key tradition in modern dance. Daniel Nagrin is one of those talented loners whose work could be lost were it not for the good sense of the Limon troupe.
"Indeterminate Figure" is a wonderfully theatrical solo summing up with Mr. Nagrin's typical blend of black humor and pathos the foibles of man. With the help of a sound collage, we see a man pursue his romantic and religious fantasies amid creaky floors and faulty plumbing. Will his imagination triumph over reality? It almost does, until the insistent voice of a telephone operator , counting off the seconds until midnight, vanquishes him. You can't escape time.
"Indeterminate Figure" is a plum of a dance, and so is Miss Humphrey's "The Shakers," which was also on the program. The Limon group doesn't exactly rise to the occasion. When one thinks of all the junk which gets spendid performances, the rev erse situation chez Limon is triply maddening.