Jerome Robbins is not scheduled to do any of the 20 new ballets on the New York City Ballet's American Music Festival in April and May, but his new ``Ives, Songs'' makes a perfect curtain-raiser for the revels to come. There are practical reasons why it was wise to have this premi`ere at the end of City Ballet's winter season instead of in the thick of the festival, not least of which is the dancers' availability for rehearsals. But the piece itself makes a convincing case for early scheduling. Its meditative, sparse theatricality might be hard to appreciate amid the hectic novelty and thrills of festival time. ``Ives, Songs'' belongs to that special genre called the piano ballet. Accompanied by onstage musicians instead of a pit orchestra, it conveys an intimacy, a personal feeling that's rare in the usual grand setting of classical ballet. Besides the great Balanchine works ``Liebeslieder Walzer'' and ``Davidsb"undlert"anze,'' ``Ives, Songs'' is preceded in the NYCB repertory by Robbins's ``Dances at a Gathering,'' and several other romantic works.
``Ives, Songs'' is reflective, even somber. A solitary older man (Lawrence Matthews, with baritone Timothy Nolen as his alter ego) looks back on his life with affection, nostalgia, and a lot of still unanswered questions. The 18 songs are skillfully arranged (no credit is given for the musical choices) to create an almost narrative sequence, leading from childhood reminiscences to spiritual revelation, to patriotic fervor that turns bitter with the devastation of war, to love, doubt, and finally farewell. Nolen, seated at the edge of the stage with pianist Gordon Boelzner, sings with a clean simple delivery that makes the words easily understood.
Robbins's vocabulary for the ballet is reserved, deliberately unvirtuosic. Even his sense of eventfulness is curtailed. Though there are 38 dancers in the cast, you never see them all till the end, when they cluster together and confront Matthews, then disperse like fading memories. They are grouped to represent different periods or ideas in the man's life. Some are semi-realistic in their actions, like the little girls who play twittery games.
A more sedate group of older girls and men waft through, mostly with partners, but they don't do anything spectacular. Their main expressivity comes from lifts, which Robbins distributes sparingly to them, and in odd contexts. The two spiritual pieces (``At the River'' and ``Serenity'') seem to consist entirely of walking patterns, and two lifts. The men raise the women in reclining positions and carry them aloft. At the end of the two songs, each man turns his partner upside down and takes her off. The effect, which ought to be clumsy, is brought off with seriousness and serenity.
The most interesting songs, to me, were the really strange ones. In ``The Cage,'' Ives pictures a leopard stalking around its cage, and a boy watching it wondering, ``Is life anything like that?'' A very diminutive man and a very tall one tiptoe back and forth, all bent over into S-curves. Helene Alexopoulos and Alexander Proia float through ``In Summer Fields,'' and as he lifts her she twists and spirals outward, seeming to escape his hands like dandelion fluff. And in the strangest one of all (``Incantation''), a gaunt, vacant-eyed Stephanie Saland steps on her pointes with arms spread, and Jeppe Mydtskov supports her from behind, until finally they merge into a single searching shape.
The most striking effects in the ballet are cinematic ones, not danced ones. A family clusters around the parents (Florence Fitzgerald and Otto Neubert) in ``Tom Sails Away.'' With the singer, they recall the father's homecoming, the babe in arms. Suddenly Ives moves forward in time, to visualize the baby grown up and going off to war. The family group wheels and re-forms, and a young man in a helmet steps out, and moves away from them.
``Ives, Songs'' is Robbins at his most affecting. Its introspective mood, so intently maintained by the dancers, depends on limited action and simple images set in empty space. At first the audience seems to mind its length and its lack of virtuosic dancing, but somehow ends up being drawn into its spell.
The City Ballet set off late-season fireworks with dancers, rather than choreography. After surgery, Suzanne Farrell returned in ``Vienna Waltzes,'' looking wonderful, and the audience welcomed her adoringly.
Nina Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa, principal dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, made their debut as visiting artists in ``Raymonda Variations.'' This is one of Balanchine's most endearing showcases for dancers, and I'd seen a miraculous performance starring Kyra Nichols the week before.
When Ananiashvili appeared among the delicate, crystalline City Ballet corps, she looked as though she'd come from another planet, and so, later, did Liepa. Big, muscular, and soft in their movements, they had the haughty, gracious manners of conventional classical stars, yet they looked curiously uncertain in the intricacies of the choreography. They hadn't, in fact, learned it all, and two of their variations were omitted.