Ballet is alive and kicking up its heels in New York

Lincoln Center is jumping, with two major ballet companies kicking up their heels on adjacent sides of the plaza. Any doubts about the continuing health of the ``dance boom'' are hard to entertain in the presence of such vigorous and versatile troupes -- the New York City Ballet in the New York State Theater, and the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in the temporarily voiceless Metropolitan Opera House. The center's own company, City Ballet, is in fine form this season. Its offerings are diverse, ranging from the Balanchine-Mendelssohn beauties of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' to the rigorous charm of ``Eight Lines,'' a recent work choreographed by Jerome Robbins to a sprightly Steve Reich score. Between these extremes are treats for every taste, whether you favor the baroque energy of Vivaldi and Corelli in a ``Square Dance,'' by Balanchine, or Robbins's musings on a ``Gershwin Concerto.''

If the City Ballet has room for basic improvement anywhere, it's in the music department. A performance I attended of Peter Martins's agile ``Rossini Quartets'' was marred by loose coordination and poor lower-string intonation in the orchestra pit. I was also disappointed by a weekend performance of ``Eight Lines'' to a recorded accompaniment that sounded dim and fuzzy. My suggestion is to avoid this canned music at all costs -- especially since a live performance of the Reich score, just a few days later, was marvelously played by the City Ballet Orchestra under Robert Irving's baton.

Standouts among the dancers this season include Darci Kistler and Afshin Mofid in Robbins's ripely romantic ``Afternoon of a Faun,'' and just about everyone in ``Eight Lines,'' which avoids the mechanistic pitfalls of Robbins's last ``minimal'' outing, ``Glass Pieces.'' Special praise goes to Gen Horiuchi as the diminutive but explosively energetic Oberon of the ``Midsummer Night's Dream,'' and to three stars -- Suzanne Farrell, Adam L"uders, and Leonid Kozlov -- who make the latter portion of ``La Valse'' a keenly dramatic as well as a stunningly balletic experience.

Over at the Metropolitan Opera House, meanwhile, the American Ballet Theatre seems eager to stress the lush classical heritage that enriches its traditional offerings and counterpoints its excursions into new territory. Maybe it's just the Met ambience, or the sheer quantity of flowers carried onstage during curtain calls; but I noted an especially ageless glow during my recent evenings with this company.

This doesn't mean a lack of variety in ABT programming, though -- quite the opposite. Consider the bill on one Monday evening, which effortlessly mixed old and new. First was a dashing rendition of Merce Cunningham's vivacious ``Duets,'' danced with a verve that just about equalled the choreographer's own troupe. Then came a heady ``Grand Pas Classique'' with Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones, both in heroic spirits. And then Kenneth MacMillan's melodramatic ``Anastasia,'' complete with mixed-media trappings and a poignant portrait of mental turbulence by Martine van Hamel.

And as if this weren't enough, Susan Jaffe and ABT artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov danced circles around Jerome Robbins's intimate ``Other Dances,'' followed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett's lively ``Great Galloping Gottschalk.'' All this in a single show, and unflagging in energy from beginning to end.

Not every offering I've seen by ABT lately has kept up this level of quality. One mild disappointment is the company's new experimental venture, ``Field, Chair, and Mountain.'' The settings by Santo Loquasto are striking, and the 19th-century score (by John Field) is fetching. But the steps ``constructed'' by David Gordon are neither sly nor inventive enough to sustain their momentum, and the novelty angle -- dancers partnering metal chairs all over the stage -- wears thin pretty soon. For a modernist flavor, give me the ABT's version of ``Airs'' by Paul Taylor, an impeccably sculptured dance performed with wit and conviction.

Other top-drawer items in the ABT repertoire include a pas de deux from ``Manon,'' danced with romantic abandon by Natalia Makarova and Kevin McKenzie; and the appealing ``Donizetti Variations,'' led by Marianna Tcherkassky and Peter Fonseca. Less memorable are productions of the Chopin-Fokine classic, ``Les Sylphides,'' and the ``Raymonda'' divertissements staged by Baryshnikov. Still, nothing I've seen in this ABT season has been less than imposing, and at its best the company can take your breath away.

The ABT continues at the Met through June 15, and City Ballet will hold forth at the State Theater through June 23. -- 30 --

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