WHEN audience members crowded into Boston's Wang Center recently, they had no idea exactly what was in store: The Boston Ballet would be dealing out four ``wild cards'' - four brand-new works not even the dancers could have anticipated as they were performing endless rounds of ``The Nutcracker'' during the holidays.
The program presented the finalists of the ballet's International Choreography Competition. By night's end, Rick McCullough would capture the gold medal and $3,000 for his dance entitled ``Others Because...''
``I was sitting there with my wife wondering by what criteria do the judges decide?'' said Mr. McCullough by phone later. ``I think my colleagues also deserve gold medals.''
In an era of fiscal restraint that forces many arts organizations to cater to conservative tastes, the Boston Ballet has made an effort to promote new works and encourage young choreographers.
``If we looked at each event from the standpoint of how much money it brings in, we'd certainly not be doing this competition,'' said artistic director Bruce Marks during a dress rehearsal. Though the company does offer traditional works - it recently performed ``Romeo and Juliet'' in Washington, D.C., and plans ``Swan Lake'' in May - ``the first obligation we have is to renew the art form,'' says Marks.
Last spring, over 200 tapes from choreographers around the world were submitted for the contest. The chosen finalists then were given the opportunity to come to Boston to create a world premi`ere with the help of the company and a full orchestra.
``It's been great being able to work with dancers of this caliber and having the luxury of time and space,'' says Bonnie Scheibman, a New York-based choreographer who won second place. ``...Lots of people are getting to see my piece,'' she adds.
McCullough agrees. ``Young choreographers who want to work in a ballet medium don't have a lot of opportunity to expose themselves, especially with the world-class facilities this company offers.''
For this second biennial contest, Marks decided to focus on choreography rooted in traditional ballet - an idiom that does not get as much attention from today's choreographers as modern dance, he says.
``I like the limitations of classical ballet - and the fact that it's a vocabulary that's been agreed upon over a long period of time,'' says Ms. Scheibman. She uses six women and one man in her work ``Moon Roses,'' set to an atonal piano improvisation by Bruce Novack, full of constantly changing tempos and long pauses.
The music presented challenges to the dancers.
``Opening night, I got very nervous,'' says Sherri Peacock, one of the lead dancers in the piece.
``Dancers have what is called muscle memory - you hear a piece of music and the muscles recall the steps automatically.'' But in ``Moon Roses,'' there is no obvious meter or melody, ``so that makes it harder. To be together, you have to be ultra-aware of the other dancers.''
William Whitener set his ``Six Verses'' to a more traditional sound - an orchestral arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ``The Seasons.''
``I wanted to make a dance that would take me back to my roots,'' says Mr. Whitener, who has performed with Twyla Tharp and the Joffrey Ballet.
The competition was a chance for him to ``strip away a lot of the influences and experiences I've had'' and ``get back to the essence of classical ballet as I perceive it.''
The company's versatility was tested to the limits in ``Planned Fun,'' by Antony Rizzi, who had dancers speaking, singing, miming, carting around boom-boxes and kitchen utensils, and trying to dance in house coats and tiger-feet slippers. Rizzi asked them to improvise, too.
``It was hard for them, because in ballet companies in America, you're told exactly what to do and where each finger is supposed to be exactly,'' says Rizzi, who trained with the Boston Ballet and is now a soloist with the Frankfurt Ballet in West Germany. ``There are different people in this company, and they have to be shown. I really wanted to show that people are individuals.''
Rizzi and Whitener both won bronze medals and $1,000. ``I need the money - let's be honest,'' Rizzi says. ``I think the idea of a competition is sort of dumb. Dance isn't a sport; it's an art.''
McCullough downplays the competitive aspect as well. For him, it was rewarding just getting to know the other choreographers. ``We spent a lot of time together, discussing our specific problems and what we were trying to do with our pieces. We were pretty much a support group for each other....''
McCullough set ``Others Because...'' to Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. ``It's a very passionate and complex score, and the tendency would be to put a step on every note,'' he says, but ``I tried to say things by not moving as much.''
Performing this work in front of the judges was ``a little nerve-wracking,'' admits Karl Condon, a soloist. ``But it inspired us to do our best. ``With Rick, there wasn't great emphasis placed on winning or losing. He never once said, `Now go out there and win.'''