THE dance world has an almost primal ambivalence about its past, and the Joffrey Ballet revival of George Balanchine's most famous lost ballet, ``Cotillon,'' is the talk of the season. Can a ballet people remember with such nostalgia be revived successfully? Some people think it's as hopeless as trying to bring back youth itself. But, if we let all the choreographic gems slip through the nets of time, role models for the future can only be as good as the present crop, hardly a stimulating prospect. Choreographed in 1932 for Ren'e Blum's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, ``Cotillon'' stayed in repertory until the mid-1940s; so people going to see ballet today can still remember it. This alone makes it more vulnerable than the ``Sacre du Printemps,'' the short-lived 1913 milestone recovered for the Joffrey last year by the same team that brought back ``Cotillon,'' dance historian Millicent Hodson and art historian Kenneth Archer. For ``Sacre'' there are few living eyewitnesses to cry incorrect, and since ``Cotillon'' hasn't been performed in ages, it remains chaste in the mind, untarnished by the subtle modifications that creep into all ballets.``Cotillon'' symbolizes the most poignant impressions of youth: the discovery of beauty and glamour, the poetry of expectation.
Balanchine's inspiration for the work was three extraordinary teen-age dancers he had discovered, Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova, and Tatiana Riabouchinska. These girls became his first ``baby ballerinas.'' Not only did ``Cotillon'' exploit the technical abilities of the three ing'enues; it also captured the tremulous quality of their adolescence - and perhaps also the fevered transitional state of the world between two wars.
The ballet was a huge success, with its gauzy, dreamy costumes by the painter Christian B'erard and its effervescent Chabrier music and tart orchestrations by Vittorio Rieti. It finally expired during the decline of the Monte Carlo itself, and Balanchine never added it to the repertory of the New York City Ballet, claiming it was too intimately tied to the naivet'e and freshness of its original dancers.
Robert Joffrey, always looking to preserve the choicest examples of choreographic history, decided that Hodson and Archer could recapture ``Cotillon'' after their triumphant reconstruction of ``Le Sacre,'' and they settled their plans shortly before Joffrey died last March. For the past year, the London-based team has been commuting between hemispheres to probe the muscle-memories of surviving cast members in order to supplement the fragmentary evidence on film and photographs. Hodson had to assemble steps and floor patterns for the 25 dancers, then stage it all in a replica of the original sets and costumes, supervised by Archer.
Never having seen ``Cotillon'' in any form, I found the return of the work a momentous event. Seeing it now, I understand why it's a tricky enterprise. Its hold on the imagination comes from many layers of glamour and insinuation, not all in full view.
The ballet is a fascinating bridge between the lush, narrative Diaghilev-era ballets and the neoclassic austerity of Balanchine. It relies on a vein of fantasy and romanticism the choreographer kept to the end of his life but used only sparingly. I think Balanchine was not only trying to be original; he was trying to evade the party-ballet formula that was so popular at the time. Being Balanchine even then, he invoked the formula only to thwart it at every turn. ``Cotillon'' is a young girl's coming-out party, with virtuoso variations, love duet, ensemble designs, funny characters - choreographic building blocks that had been put together for years, especially by Balanchine's rival L'eonide Massine.
What Balanchine did so daringly was to to eliminate story line and nondancing characters, and let the ballet slide almost unconsciously into near-sinister intimations of heartbreak, scary portents of adult responsibility, and maybe even a fatalistic glimpse of the end of an era.
The debutante and her best friend find they're rivals for the same young man, a triangle that has its formal echo in the corps's groupings of two women partnered by each man. There are scraps of hijinks, a harlequin dance, a jockey dance. In the mist of a Spanish dance, the Young Girl strums a guitar, and her friend plucks at the strings from behind her, embracing and entrapping her at the same time.
Suddenly all the guests are gone, and one man we haven't seen before finds himself dancing with a woman in a black dress with golden stars on it, the celebrated Hand-of-Fate duet. She twines her long black gloves around him, slithers voluptuously along his back, drapes herself in his arms. He hides his eyes in enchantment or terror. When the guests come back, the heroine reads palms lightheartedly, until she finds something awful in one girl's hand. She draws away from the celebrants, has disturbing visions, clings to a momentarily sympathetic Mistress of Ceremonies, rushes through a ritualistic double line of friends, and finally vanishes behind some screens. Balanchine doesn't explain the girl's upset or her untroubled reappearance a few minutes later, as if it were all a party trick.
Just when you think order and gaiety has been restored, the guests rollick away in a farandole, and the girl is left alone. She starts spinning, one leg whipping out like a hand warding off danger, and she's still whirling when everyone comes snake-dancing back. The last thing you see is her turning, turning, arms flung up, in the center of a turbulent, desperate spiral of tulle.
Tina LeBlanc was wonderful as the Young Girl, looking small and young, and also strong enough to survive more than adolescent trauma. Beatrice Rodriguez, as the Hand of Fate, and Glenn Edgerton, as her Cavilier, made flirtation suddenly seem a grown-up game. Others in the excellent first cast were Carole Valleskey, as the Friend, Edward Stierle as the fickle Young Man, and Jerel Hilding and Leslie Carothers as the Master and Mistress of Ceremonies.