A new ballet by choreographer Jerome Robbins is an event to be cherished. The New York City Ballet made the world-premiere performance a celebration in more ways than one.
Robbins's giddy and exuberant ballet "Brandenburg," set to segments from four of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, was launched at New York State Theater at Lincoln Center on Jan. 22, the birthday of George Balanchine. "Brandenburg" will be presented again on Feb. 12 and 15.
The performance began with a toast in honor of Balanchine and ended in bursts of laughter, in response to the revival of Robbins's 1956 comic ballet, "The Concert." Peter Martins, artistic director of the New York City Ballet, and Mihkail Baryshnikov, who spent several seasons with the troupe before Balanchine's death in 1983, followed the time-honored Russian custom of toasting the master's memory.
Wynton Marsalis, the famed jazz trumpet player, followed them on the huge, bare stage with an original riff on the familiar birthday tune that Balanchine, one of the most musical of choreographers, would have loved.
The program opened with Balanchine's 1928 work, "Apollo," composed four years after he left Russia, when he was a choreographer with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes.
"Apollo," the oldest Balanchine work in the NYCB repertory, is counted by many as the seminal piece of 20th-century ballet because of its intertwining of classical vocabulary with the out-of-kilter poses, turned-in steps, and oddly wrought phrasing to Igor Stravinsky's score.
Balanchine first presented the work in America in 1937, reviving it for NYCB in 1951.
The performance connected old and new in casting as Apollo the virile, premier dancer Igor Zelensky, who left the Kirov Ballet in 1992 to join NYCB opposite Darci Kistler. The last of the ballerinas appointed by Balanchine, Kistler performs Terpsichore.
"Apollo" tells the story of the birth of dance in metaphoric fashion, as the boy-god Apollo grows to manhood and allies himself with the arts, personified as three of the muses.
In contrast, "Brandenburg" is presented as a festival ballet, starting in the village square and later progressing to a more formal party at court.
The opening segment of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is choreographed for a lead pair, Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal, who might be the queen and king of the May and are at the center of an enthusiastic corps of eight couples.
Hints of folk dance are everywhere in the patterns of the circle and hand-holding daisy-chain formations, in the heel-toe stepping, and the lift of a hand behind the head.
Robbins is sure enough in the counts to meld the movement phrases to Bach's measures so that the dance keeps pace with the rapidly swirling music, even if the performers need to vary the classical movements with little running steps to keep up.
The change of mood comes in Concerto No. 2 when the stage turns dark, in Jennifer Tipton's lighting scheme, for a pas de deux by Lourdes Lopez and Nikolaj Hubbe that hearkens back to the spirit dances of the Romantic era.
Hubbe seems to be a mere mortal, escorting a beautiful dream maiden whom he can lead but cannot touch. His arm guides her forward and back by its presence, until he can lift her in the air. At the finish, they bow to each other and leave at opposite sides of the stage.
The finale, which is set to the bouncing Concerto No. 6, is a return to the folk-dance motif for the entire cast. Robbins has created another impressive ballet for the company he has served as a performer, associate artistic director, and ballet master since 1949.
Now in its 49th year, New York City Ballet under Martins remains mindful of its ties to the past as it expands its repertory.
While the company of dancers is mostly drawn from the School of American Ballet, which Balanchine founded when he came to this country in 1933, Martins, like Balanchine before him, has made room for stellar imports from abroad: Zelensky and Hubbe of the Royal Danish Ballet among others, and guests such as the Paris Opera Ballet's dashing Isabelle Guerin, who led the cast in "The Concert."
The company is already thinking ahead to 1998, its 50th anniversary, when it intends to take the riches of its legacy on tour to all 50 states, in a gift to the nation.