VIRTUOSO dance is all the better for being supported by virtuoso music. Zurich Ballet's latest offering has plenty of both. Already a considerable hit with audiences in the Swiss city's opulent opera house, the current program is comprised of three ballets newly choreographed to works by Rachmaninov - works of surging romanticism. The music is lush, tidal, expressive; it came more from the heart than from the head.
This is by no means the first time ballets have been successfully set to the Russian-American composer's music, though he composed no ballet music as such. It was Michel Fokine who started something of a trend in 1939 with his ballet to Rachmaninov's ``Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.'' The composer himself was pleased enough with that event to let Fokine be the first person to hear his last work, the ``Symphonic Dances'' of 1940 - though he primarily thought of the piece as concert music. But nothing came of this, despite the choreographer's enthusiasm for the dances; and they have since come to be thought of as concert, rather than ballet, music.
But now, in the hands of American choreographer John Clifford, they form the first section of the tripartite Zurich program. It all makes for a stimulating agreement between music and dance. Mr. Clifford has created ballets that pay homage to three ballet troupes and their distinctive styles.
He has turned the first movement - with its energetic rhythms and drifting saxophone melody - into a tribute to New York City Ballet. Dressed in black and white, 14 dancers capture the athletic rhythms of George Balanchine's NYCB tradition.
Movement No. 2, by comparison, unfolds a story line to a haunting waltz theme while immitating the style and atmosphere of the Paris Opera Ballet, displaying an awareness of the choreography of Serge Lifar and Rudolph Nureyev. The stage is elaborately curtained in silver-gray drapes and chandeliers scintillate above dancers in evening dress.... Vermilion is added to the black and white scheme in the form of long gloves and sash for the principal - and certainly macabre - figure, a temptress danced by Shonach Mirk. Clifford might here almost be following up the suggestion of a critical reviewer of the ``Symphonic Dances'' in 1940 who said this ``long and derivative'' work ``might serve for a ballet with a macabre theme.''
Ms. Mirk, an American dancer who was previously a soloist in B'ejart's Ballet of the 20th Century, is as dramatic as she is lithe and long of limb. She comes as near as any of the Zurich company to star status - though the impression left by the evening as a whole was of a group of strong individuals whose ensemble work is totally committed, precise, and self-effacing.
In this second Symphonic Dance, Mirk is memorable from entrance to final melodramatic exit, in which she is carried away like paper in the wind by her cloaked master in a movement superbly tied to the music's last moments.
In the final movement, Clifford takes a humorously admiring look at the Bolshoi, emphasizing the Russian company's standard Spanish ballets and then introducing some famous ballet characters - Odette, Giselle, Petruschka, Firebird, and a figure representing the ballet ``Spectre de la Rose.''
Clifford's ingenious work is saved from being merely clever pastiche by its sensitive choreographic responses to the continually changing emotion and pace of the music. His work here actually enhances the music.
The succession of balletic styles are resolved when, in the finale, all pretenses are removed and the company, on a naked stage and in casual exercise clothes, celebrates in dance the ``Alliluya'' (sic) that brings the Dances to their triumphant conclusion.
This opening ballet dominates the entire program - though what follows is also a feat. The middle ballet is set to Rachmaninov's ``Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos'' and of its four sections, a quick waltz by two male dancers sticks in the mind, and some fluid acrobatics by dancer Beatriz de Almeida, assisted by Julian Brandon and Donald Dadey, were impressive.
The choreographer for this and the last third of the evening is the German Uwe Scholz, resident choreographer in Zurich. Differing from Clifford's approach, Mr. Scholz's seems to recognize above all the forward impulsion, the continuum, of the music. This works best in the ambitious ballet he has contrived to climax the program. It is set to Rachmaninov's ambitious Piano Concerto No. 3.
For decor, three paintings by American abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning - brooding gestures of paint and sweet color - are blown up on the backcloth, and the dancer's costumes are dyed in imitation, but not always successfully. The after-image left by the dancing is of something that arrives and departs, like the music, in waves; of a dizzying energy and an endless stream of acrobatic gyrations. It is classical ballet technique exploited with great excitement and ingenuity. But it suggests that if you use concert music for ballet it is reduced to mere ballet music in the process.
But the effect of enlarged Expressionist paintings vying with tempestuous outburts of music vying with brilliant, exhaustless dancing was pretty overwhelming.
The last few moments were unforgettable. Particularly so was the penultimate emergence from the mass of Mirk (after being rather too compliantly manhandled at dramatic moments earlier in the piece) to assert the Rights of Ballerinas. Looking as though she wanted to break free from dolldom and manipulated human objecthood at last, she emphatically stamped her toe on point, like a fighting cock. And Rachmaninov, impetuous to the last, stamped vigorously in time.