N.Y.C. Ballet searches for artistic future

When George Balanchine was alive, the New York City Ballet never had to question, or even define, its artistic policy. It was assumed that at least one new ballet a season would be by Balanchine and that it would serve the company masterfully; it might even be a masterpiece.

Now that Balanchine has passed on, the City Ballet does have to consider its artistic function. Should it be primarily a repository for the Balanchine repertory?

Since that repertory is vast, how much emphasis need be placed on new ballets by other choreographers? Are dancers and audiences best served by new work, regardless of quality?

The current season, which runs at the New York State Theater through Feb. 19, finds the Balanchine repertory in superb shape. This wonderful news is all the more wonderful because it was not inevitable. When people say that dance is the ephemeral art, they mean that the intent of the choreography is easily lost over time, especially when the choreographer is not there to coach the dancers in expressive nuance and in the small technical matters that often make all the difference between right- and wrong-minded performance.

Naturally, the great fear for the Balanchine ballets is that the dancers will not be properly inspired or instructed without the creator's presence. The dancing this season allays those fears. Ballets as various as the classical ''Raymonda Variations,'' the modern, angular ''Episodes,'' and the jazzy ''Western Symphony'' have been right on the mark. As far as Balanchine goes, the only problem with this season is that there hasn't been enough of his work on the programs.

It's the new ballets - one by Jerome Robbins and one by Peter Martins, both ballet masters in chief - that bring us back to the first questions. Both Robbins's ''Antique Epigraphs'' and Martins's ''A Schubertiad'' have good moments, and both treat the ballet language seriously. (One can't take the latter point for granted.) Yet their chief virtue is to fill the new-ballet quota.

''Antique Epigraphs,'' to the Debussy piece by the same name and the composer's flute solo ''Syrinx,'' has pretty suggestions of Grecian movement and hints at something more than steps. Created for eight women, the ballet suggests a self-contained society of proud, vaguely troubled women. They're half Amazonian, half vestal virgin, and not quite content with either fate.

The thematic enigma of ''Antique Epigraphs'' would be more engaging if Robbins had not been so self-consciously arty. There are far too many picture post card tableaux, and the restrained tone is rather strained.

Self-consciousness is also the problem with ''A Schubertiad.'' Basically a series of waltzes to Schubert, it is Martins's intent to suffuse the salon setting with emotional resonance. The ballet is fraught with competitive trios, vaguely unhappy duets, and a general feeling of farewell. Martins imposes these feelings from outside the fabric of the choreography, and the result is that one doesn't believe what one sees. It makes one wish that the dancers would stop looking at each other in ''meaningful'' ways and just dance.

The New York City Ballet will be at the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., from Feb. 29 to March 11.

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