The opening week of the New York City Ballet's American Music Festival revealed a preoccupation with sets, costumes, character, riddles, stage tricks, and moodiness, but not much dancing, let alone innovative choreography. The six new ballets laid out the dilemma that faces the company. Fashioned by and for the restless inventiveness of George Balanchine, the New York troupe boasts more than 100 splendid dancers, trained in the most exquisite skills of the classical art. Without him, how will it provide them with work that makes use of their abilities and speaks to the audience too? The New York City Ballet needs more than additions to its repertory. It needs to reestablish its aesthetic.
Among the first week's offerings, Peter Martins's ``Tanzspiel'' seemed to me the best indicator of what this could be. Set to an expressionistic commissioned score by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the ballet observes the formal conventions of classicism, with some psychological trauma embedded in the movement.
Balanchine worked this way on occasion, but I think even his troubled ballets were seldom so thoroughly pervaded with a sense of doom.
Disengaged pas de deux
First a group of men moves in unison and mostly in place. Kyra Nichols wanders among them not looking at any of them but as if searching for something. Nor do they acknowledge her.
She comes up behind Lindsay Fischer as the other men leave, and they begin a pas de deux, in which she twines around him while he keeps his arms unengaged, out to the sides. Then Nichols dances with a group of women. When Fischer returns, he suddenly seems smitten with Nichols, and they reverse roles. In a duet, he winds himself around a now-passive Nichols.
After another group interlude, Nichols appears, with her hair down, a signal in all Balanchine ballets that the woman's seductive and/or spiritual nature is being released. In a final pas de deux, she succeeds in getting Fischer to dance her to death, after which he briefly does another code duet, the Dance With the Lifeless Woman.
Echoes of classical style
These changes are given neither psychological nor choreographic motivation. Both men's and women's ensembles return to pair up momentarily, and I wonder if they will all recapitulate the principals' frigid passion. But they go their separate ways, and the hero is left alone at the end, looking mystified, though still alienated.
About halfway through ``Tanzspiel'' I realized that what the dancers were doing had little to do with the dark, arhythmic tensions of the music. That is, their formal stage groupings, the neat distinctions between men and women, stars and corps, and the virtuosic and presentational character of the step vocabulary are all indicative of celebration in the classical style. Martins even uses thematic ideas in the score to carry forward his dual agenda.
Word around the press corps had it that ``Tanzspiel'' was about the Jennifer Levin murder, but to be that specific trivializes whatever merit Martins's cold vision of love might have. I thought his ballet referred to classic images of wronged and avenging females, like ``Giselle,'' or twisted, self-destructive romanticism, like Balanchine's ``La Sonnambula.'' Any way you look at his sensibility, it's bleak.
Kyra Nichols brought this ballet what passion it had, through her brilliant dancing and her intense sense of character.