THE Boston Ballet's new three-part ``Tales of Hans Christian Andersen'' is a lavish display of the company's intention to challenge America's major ballet organizations, and in tone and amplitude it succeeds. Co-choreographers Bruce Marks and Bruce Wells, who are, respectively, artistic director and associate director of the company, have cannily built on Mr. Marks's connection with Denmark, where the European ballet has an exceptionally fruitful tradition. Before coming to Boston two years ago, Marks and his late wife, Danish ballerina Toni Lander, successfully restored a lost work of the great choreographer and close friend of Andersen, August Bournonville. ``Abdallah'' was designed for Ballet West of Salt Lake City by Jens-Jacob Worsaae, whose services Marks has secured again for ``Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.''
In some ways, Boston is a more likely place than Salt Lake City to transplant the modest but fanciful lore of Bournonville and Andersen - Copenhagen is also, like Boston, a seafaring city that loves its history and its heroes. The Boston Ballet has announced it will do a selection from Bournonville's ``Napoli'' next year, and the Andersen trilogy is an introduction to the refined and textured delights of Bournonville.
Each of the three Andersen ballets is in a different style. ``The Ice Maiden,'' known elsewhere under the title of its Stravinsky score, ``Le Baiser de la F'ee,'' is, I think, closest to Bournonville in spirit. Its poetic and simple story tells of a young man (Devon Carney) who, as a child, was saved in a snowstorm by the Ice Maiden (Marie-Christine Mouis). On the eve of his marriage, the implacable fairy separates him from his fianc'ee (Elaine Bauer). The Ice Maiden could be a symbol of the muse, who robs the artist of life's mundane joys. As staged by Marks and Wells, the story clearly relates to Bournonville's famous ``La Sylphide'' where the supernatural creature streaks through the wedding of James and Effie, luring him away.
Mr. Worsaae has created an ingenious painted and projected forest backdrop that changes from spring to winter when the Ice Maiden and her entourage pursue the young man. With Craig Miller's lighting transformations these changes cinematically shift the action.
``The Steadfast Tin Soldier'' (set to music by Bizet) is the familiar tale of the toy soldier (William Pizzuto) who falls in love with a paper ballerina (Laura Young), and when she's blown into the fireplace he jumps in after her. In the flames, their love fuses into a tin heart. Marks and Wells extend the plot by setting it within a 19th-century family Christmas. The toys the children get as presents become life-size dancers and act out their story in a set that's a duplicate of the doll house. There are more than a few references here to George Balanchine's Christmas classic, ``The Nutcracker.''
Various adventures and effects are added to the little love story. Nine toy soldiers march out of a big box. Even better, the Tin Soldier gets pushed out the window by his rival, a nasty jack-in-the-box (Karl Condon), and makes an incredible journey back to the family. Here, the scale changes rapidly and magically when a little boy finds the soldier on the street and sails it off in a paper boat. Switch to the real Pizzuto in a person-sized boat, sailing straight into the mouth of an enormous fish. Having swallowed him, the fish heads for an enormous hook that's dangling nearby. Blackout. Switch to the family having dinner; the father begins to serve a big roasted fish, and guess what he finds inside!
The third story, ``The Wild Swans,'' is more complicated and less well known. There's a jealous stepmother (Anamarie Sarazin), a virtuous princess (Lori Nowak) who nearly sacrifices her life to release her 11 brothers from the stepmother's evil spell, and a happy ending that includes a smitten but strangely ineffectual Prince Charming (Iouri Borodine).
As the evening progressed, I felt increasingly satiated with Worsaae's beautiful costumes and effects and deprived of dancing. Not that there isn't any dancing in the ``Tales.'' The corps and principals work hard and create the right looks - peasants and icicle-sprites in the first ballet, broadly painted toys, and naturalistic family members in the second, and noble courtiers and enemy witches in the last. But the scale and intensity of the dancing don't vary. Except in the virtuosic courtship of the ``Tin Soldier'' dolls, the choreographers have set a fairly limited step vocabulary. The principals do attractive lifts and posings; the ensembles whirl and extend their limbs, whirl and extend, in unison or interminable canonic patterns. For a company of fewer than 40 dancers, ``Tales of Hans Christian Andersen'' is spectacular and opulent. It's a display of theater arts, though, more than the glories of technique.