A legendary ballet makes more history

The sugar-plum fairy is about to float away for another year and the historic 50th season of the New York City Ballet to commence. The company's annual run of "The Nutcracker" closes Sunday, and the winter season begins Tuesday with the first of 100 ballets the company will perform this season. No other ballet troupe in the world can match these riches, from the new staging of "Swan Lake" in late April to world premires in honor of the anniversary.

First on the winter schedule, which runs through the end of February, is a week of George Balanchine's "black and white" ballets. The master choreographer's signature works show off his asymmetrical, fast-paced, and tautly musical versions of classical technique. The dancers will be dressed in rehearsal clothes, which in 1948 was a startling departure from the familiar ornate costumes. A special week of ballets by Jerome Robbins, the ballet's associate director and choreographer who passed on last summer, will be featured Feb. 23-28.

The New York City Ballet counts its official beginning as Oct. 11, 1948, when the fledgling company founded by American visionary Lincoln Kirstein and Rus-sian-born choreographer Balanchine, gave its first performance under that name. The program that night half a century ago included three of Balanchine's ballets: "Concerto Barocco"; "Orpheus," which premired earlier that year with its radiant score commissioned from Igor Stravinsky; and "Symphony in C."

The company opened its 50th season last month with a Nov. 24 gala performance that mirrored its first performance five decades earlier, with two major differences. The first was location. Since 1964, the ballet's home has been Lincoln Center's New York State Theater; it was launched at City Center Theater on 56th Street.

And then there was the presence of 250 former ballet company members, dating back to 1948, who shared the final curtain call with the current dancers. Amid cheers from the audience and balloons and gold confetti raining down, the veterans marched on stage as a living reminder of how the ballet company has developed, beginning as a startlingly innovative group of dancers performing Balanchine's lightning-quick, athletic brand of classical ballet and becoming one of the most influential arts institutions of the 20th century. Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jacques d'Amboise, Arthur Mitchell, and Allegra Kent were among the many previous stars to be recognized and recalled.

The evening started with a toast from the stage by Peter Martins, the company's ballet master in chief, to "Lincoln and Mr. B.," as Balanchine was universally called. Mr. Martins also included Robbins in the salute.

The performance was dedicated to legendary ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, one of the company's leading dancers from the late 1940s to 1956 when her career was cut short by an illness. Ms. LeClercq, who was in the audience, was honored with a film of excerpts from her performances.

But most of all, the evening was about the repertory and the dancing. "Concerto Barocco," set to Johann Sebastian Bach's "Double Violin Concerto in D minor," with its ever-crossing lines of women from the corps de ballet and their soft bouncing on point, was a reminder of Balanchine's belief that dance for its own sake was a fit subject for a ballet. Yvonne Borree and Jennie Somogyi, both partnered by Nikolaj Hubbe, led the corps de ballet.

More amazing was the revival of "Orpheus," resplendent in its exotic costuming and props designed by Isamu Noguchi. The wrenching pas de deux of leaving the underworld, performed by Nilas Martins as Orpheus and Kyra Nichols as Eurydice, came to a breath-taking climax as Eurydice was pulled away from Orpheus beneath a billowing white curtain because he looks back.

The program's finale, "Symphony in C" (set to "Symphony No. 1 in C major," by Georges Bizet), gave evidence of the company's overall strength. Fifty-two of the 90 dancers now on contract took to the stage for the fourth movement. Earlier, the exuberant Miranda Weese and Damian Woetzel led the lively first movement, followed by Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal in the exquisitely slow-motion adagio.

The company has planned nearly a year's worth of anniversary events. After the winter season, Martins will stage a "new" version of "Swan Lake," premiring April 29 at the State Theater and telecast on PBS on "Live From Lincoln Center." New York City performances end in June with Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," before the company moves to Saratoga, N.Y., its summer home.

An exhibition chronicling the company's 50 years will open at the New York Historical Society in April. And William Morrow & Co. has published "Tributes," a book of New York City Ballet memorabilia and reminiscences that belongs on every ballet-lover's bookshelf.

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