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American Ballet Theatre builds an eclectic New York season with classics, premieres

AMONG the highlights of the American Ballet Theatre's (ABT) nearly concluded repertory program, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, are ``Cruel World,'' the new ballet by Canadian choreographer James Kudelka, and ``The Nutcracker,'' artistic director Kevin McKenzie's first full-length ballet. The latter includes a new libretto by playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who wasn't the only theatrical connection this season: The company also performed the ballet premiere of Lar Lubovitch's ``The Red Shoes,'' excerpted and adapted from his work for the unsuccessful Broadway musical.

Having suffered through the Broadway show once, I had no wish to be reminded of the experience, as generally effective as Lubovitch's work is.

But visits to the other two premieres demonstrated both the artistic vitality and the superb level of dancing that is to be found at ABT. ``Cruel World,'' which is performed to a string sextet by Tchaikovsky, is a work in four movements involving 18 dancers; although basically plotless, it is a powerfully emotional portrait of the relationships between men and women, as depicted in a series of dazzling encounters.

Kudelka's choreography manages the rare feat of being both endlessly energetic and nonrepetitive. In a series of duets, the partners come together and break apart in a thrilling series of combinations in which connections are barely made, leaps seem to come out of nowhere, and couples seem about to break apart through sheer momentum.

Like many plotless ballets, ``Cruel World,'' even at its short length, goes on too long. But the work shows Kudelka's command of choreography, and demonstrates a major talent that is only now attracting attention.

It might be churlish to ask if the world needs another ``Nutcracker.'' But a better question is: Does the ABT need one? Like every dance company struggling to survive, it does.

The vagaries of scheduling their New York sojourn meant that audiences would see ``The Nutcracker'' in the balmy spring, producing a general air of disorientation (and probably accounting for the paltry number of performances it received). The production did debut in California last December, and it apparently has since been reworked.

Wasserstein, befitting a playwright whose work has dealt primarily with the vicissitudes of modern relationships, has altered the tone of the piece into more of a romantic fable than the traditional child's fantasy. Indeed, this is almost a coming-of-age story, with Clara, the heroine, being an adolescent rather than a child.

Towards the end, she is transformed by the Sugar Plum Fairy into a ballerina. When Clara returns home, her godfather Drosselmeyer introduces her to his son, who happens to be the same Prince with whom she has just shared her adventures. He gallantly hands her a bouquet, which she accepts, only to give him one flower back in return. Career fulfillment, romance, and a feminist gesture, all in one ballet.

There are numerous changes in this ``Nutcracker,'' including rearrangings and deletions of some of Tchaikovsky's music.

Paul Kelly's scenery and Theoni Aldredge's costumes are lovely, charming in their visual appeal and inventive in their machinations (the flowers blossom before your eyes). McKenzie's choregraphy doesn't begin to approach George Balanchine's, but it is perfectly serviceable, and at the performance I caught it was danced beautifully by Marianna Tcherkassky (Clara), Johan Renvall (Nutcracker), Susan Jaffe (Sugar Plum Fairy), Paloma Herrera (Snow Queen), and Julie Kent (Dew Drop).

If this isn't a ``Nutcracker'' for the ages, it's certainly one for the '90s.

* ABT performs `The Red Shoes' with `La Sylphide' tonight. Through June 4: `Giselle.'

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