Peter Martins captures the essence of old-time comic ballets

Through the works of George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet has become justifiably famous for its modern approach to ballet. The accent is on pure dance, and on the expressive potential of classical technique.

Good music and articulate bodies are all one needs, the repertory claims. If there's a signature look to the City Ballet, it would be the so-called black-and-white ballet, in which the stage is stripped bare of decoration and the costumes are practice clothes.

Yet the City Ballet also performs works based on 19th-century aesthetics, including those of production, and sometimes delves into specific ballets from the Imperial Russian era. Ironically, perhaps, but not so surprisingly, of all American companies it's the modern-age City Ballet that most convincingly revives the past. Maybe one reason this company under Balanchine's guidance can make the past pertinent is because it has such a keen sense of the present. Knowing where it is, it knows where it comes from.

Well, this is speculation. The fact is that a wonderful new-old ballet has recently been premiered during the City Ballet's winter season at the New York State Theater, which runs through Feb. 21. The ballet is ''The Magic Flute,'' which Ivanov made in 1900 to the music of Drigo, the Imperial ballet's house composer.

Using the same score and story, principal dancer Peter Martins has fashioned new choreography that perfectly captures the essence of old-time comic ballets. Yet the dancing speaks to us directly in its ebullience and depth of feeling, especially in the duets for the hero and heroine, Luke and Lise.

''The Magic Flute'' looks humorously at thwarted love. Lise loves Luke, but her parents want to marry her off to a decrepit fop who happens to be rich. Through providential intervention and other twists of plot, everybody ends up with whom he rightfully belongs. Besides dealing with this conventional story line, Martins has also incorporated other old-fashioned devices, such as mime and supposedly atmospheric crowd scenes.

What's so superb about Martins's ''Magic Flute'' is the absolute conviction with which it handles the required courses and the seamless way in which story flows into dance. The ballet seems so at ease with itself, it's easy to believe that Martins was born in the 1840s rather than the 1940s.

The ease with which Martins transports himself into another era carries into the choreography, per se. In past works, Martins has sometimes strained for novel effect. Working in a traditional style has loosened him up. The dancing is as ingenious as anything he's done, but it moves like a breeze. With its silly story and slight music, ''The Magic Flute'' is Martins's most mature ballet to date.

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