A Viking king's way with the dance

Choreographer Peter Martins stands among a quartet of dancers in the large studio that stretches across the top floor of the Boston Ballet's building, rising above the roofs of neighboring townhouses. He's demonstrating a phrase in the ballet he is creating, showing the dancers nuances of the timing.

Although it's been decades since he appeared as one of the leading principal dancers of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), he still projects the Viking-king image of his performing years and moves with the same authority.

He is comfortable now in the teaching mode, clearly in command of a familiar situation. The geography, however, is not the same. Usually he makes his ballets for NYCB, the company he has led for more than 20 years.

This time, Boston is getting the new work first.

Born in Copenhagen but settled in New York since 1970, Martins comes from a distinguished line of ballet masters, from August Bournonville of the Royal Danish Ballet and Marius Petipa at St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet to George Balanchine - who carried the Imperial Ballet's traditions to the United States in the 1930s.

Martins entered the school of the Royal Danish Ballet at age 7, joined its company at 19, and met Balanchine in 1967 when the young performer was called in to guest with NYCB, cofounded by Balanchine in 1948, 15 years after he came to the US.

The older man became Martins's role model and mentor as a choreographer. Handpicked by "Mr. B." as his successor, Martins contributes new ballets to the company repertory each season, with more than 90 works to his credit.

More than 21 years since Mr. B.'s death, Martins still sprinkles his comments with quotes from him. In a conversation after rehearsal, he was reminded of Balanchine's teachings in talking about the importance of understanding the music.

Balanchine was a trained musician who often made his own piano reductions of the scores for his ballets. Martins says he grew up in a house with music and studied piano as a child. "In a conversation with Mr. B., I said, 'Mr. B., I can't follow a score like you can. I can't get inside it.' He said to me, 'Dear, don't worry about it. I don't trust my ears. You have very good ears. I have very good eyes. Trust your ears.' "

The music for "Distant Light" ("Tala Gaisma") is from "Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra" by contemporary Latvian composer Peteris Vasks.

"It's hard to [say] what makes me respond to music. I've done so many things. Usually, with John Adams, with whom I choreograph a lot, there's a very insistent rhythm. It makes you want to dance. [Vasks] was born when I was born, but in Latvia, I think in Mischa's [Mikhail Baryshnikov's] hometown. The more I listened to the music, the more I thought it could be a dance. I kept seeing images, like a woman and three men."

As seen in an early rehearsal and in another just before the ballet's première, "Distant Light" is an abstract ballet for a woman and three men, and you could imagine a plot about their meetings and partings. (Balanchine was quoted as saying that if you put a woman on stage with a man, there's a story.)

"The ballet will portray three different kinds of encounters. I would say [the woman] could hold her own with each of them," Martins says.

Two of the Boston principal dancers, Lorna Feijoo and Pollyana Ribeiro, will alternate as the woman.

Each ballerina must perform a punishing, acrobatic role that keeps her on stage, on pointe, for nearly the entire 29-minute dance. As she stretches her body to its limits and beyond, she must be ready for the sudden lifts: One of them involves being hoisted across her partner's shoulder, balancing without holding on, not to mention being thrown several times in the air.

At the end of rehearsal, Ribeiro still manages a smile but adds, "It's hard because it's all back to back. The time you have to rest you must do so in a difficult position."

After three weeks in Boston, Martins returned to NYCB for its tour to Japan and the US West Coast before starting fall rehearsals at Lincoln Center, in advance of the New York winter season that opens Nov. 23.

Martins comes back to Boston next week, to supervise transferring the work to the Wang Theatre stage.

Raul Salamanca, a corps member cast as one of the men, says about Martins, "He's great to work with, surprisingly humble and down to earth."

Earlier, Martins had talked about his method. "I don't tell them anything beyond the steps. The minute you say something, they begin to portray it. If an audience can see a story, that's great, but it's from the dance, not my words. That's what makes us dancers, not writers."

The Boston Ballet presents "Balanchine Martins Balanchine," "Rubies" and "Divertimento No. 15" by George Balanchine; "Distant Light" by Peter Martins; at the Wang Theatre, Oct. 21 to 24.

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