Arts: Birthday brilliance at NYCB

No other company in the world could do it. To celebrate its 50 years, New York City Ballet is presenting a breathtaking showcase season of 100 ballets.

New York City, where the streets vibrate with kaleidoscopic life and everything is possible, casts ballet in its own image. So its spirit infuses the super-powered dance-machine that is New York City Ballet, simultaneously protean and homogenous, modern and traditional. NYCB is celebrating its 50th birthday, although if you count its previous incarnations it is 13 years older, making it the second-oldest company in the US (after the San Francisco Ballet).

In New York, however, getting long in the tooth does not mean slowing down. From last November to June, NYCB is presenting 10 themed blocks of programmes, "the kind of showcase its co-founder George Balanchine used to go for", paying tribute to its choreographers and composers. The result adds up to some 14 choreographers, crowned by the genius of the late Balanchine and Robbins; and no fewer than 100 ballets, including revivals, world premieres and a new, complete Swan Lake staged last month by the company's present director, Peter Martins.

These are incredible figures, when you consider the logistics of casting and rehearsal. No other company in the world could do it, and Martins is right to talk of "a repertory that is unmatched in the history of ballet", and a company housing "some of the most extraordinary artists of the century". As a Danish-born NYCB dancer, Martins himself was extraordinary; as today's choreographer he may not match Balanchine or Robbins, but in the depopulated terrain of classical creators he is an important asset. His Suite from l'Histoire du Soldat and Jeu de Cartes, performed as part of the Stravinsky Festival programmes, reveals a sophisticated musicality and pattern-making in the Balanchine manner, while his witty manipulation of choreographic possibilities suggests an unexpected playfulness.

Moulded by Balanchine as his preferred successor, Martins none the less remains stigmatised by a section of the dance press. Perhaps one reason is Martins's own supercilious reluctance to speak to critics, smile at them or otherwise attach any value to what they do. Perhaps also, unimpressed by his choreography, the detractors resent the space he takes up in the repertory. (The birthday festivities include 19 works by Martins, but then there are 45 by Balanchine.)

It is hard, though, to see how they can accuse him of betraying the company's legacy, given the quality of the dancing and the current cornucopia of Balanchine and Robbins ballets. This selection focuses not only on the big favourites, but on lesser-known pieces such as Balanchine's two short essays in the Stravinsky Festival. In Monumentum Pro Gesualdo, Stravinsky's transposition of Gesualdo's madrigals becomes the floor for a grove of figures in quiet and courtly pacing.

Movements for Piano and Orchestra is contrastingly astringent and at first I recoiled at the dance's austere modernist inversions, performed on or between Stravinsky's sparse notes. But came a pas de deux, the single man (Robert Lyon) seeming to lunge at, then snatch away from his partner (Helene Alexopoulos) in maybe just a musical response, maybe a secret narrative. And suddenly I was reminded (yet again) of Balanchine's drastic, rule-bending inventiveness and layered depths.

NYCB's dancers move on the crest of the music, uncluttered limbs circumscribing large segments of air. Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements is in many repertories, but nowhere does it have such exciting boldness, such sweep, with the platoons of ponytailed women cantering like Amazons on the score's marching advance. Damian Woetzel skims the stage with an ace's ease and elegance in Jeu de Cartes; Peter Boal in Balanchine's Apollo has a muscular emphasis that makes ultra-legible the significance of a movement; and the young, wonderfully named Benjamin Millepied jetes like an arrow into Lew Christensen's Four Norwegian Moods.

Among the women are several new talents, such as Monique Meunier, a striking, Picasso giantess who conquers the stage with opulent extensions. At the other physical extreme is Alexandra Ansanelli, whose childlike body transforms itself into a searingly dramatic instrument. I have never seen such a convincing performance of Robbins's The Cage.

Ballet is on a high in New York. A few yards across from NYCB at the State Theater, American Ballet Theatre at the Met is displaying a new company member: the Royal Ballet's renegade Viviana Durante, who danced her first ABT Juliet last week. ABT also fields a dazzling array of virtuosity, and where most companies have a hard time finding even decent male dancers, this one has more stars than it needs. Angel Corella, 23 years old, is ballet's Concorde, fired with supersonic energy and competitiveness. As Solor in La Bayadere, he whizzes and flies, making everyone else seem stationary. Once he has calmed down enough to soften his permanently tense edges, he will have the world at his feet. He comes with another ABT principal - Ethan Steifel, equally athletic but more maturely refined - to guest with the Royal Ballet next season.

British spectators remembering ABT's nadir in London nine years ago should know it is a company reborn, thanks to Kevin McKenzie as artistic director and Michael Kaiser as executive. (Kaiser now has an even bigger challenge at the Royal Opera House.) You could say ABT is the equivalent of English National Ballet, and NYCB of the Royal Ballet. But I don't see either of our companies offering the same excellence. Perhaps the indispensable ingredient is that New York can-do attitude.

NYCB's Anniversary Programmes continue to 27 June at New York State Theater; Peter Boal and other NYCB dancers appear in 'New York Ballet Stars II' at the Royal Festival Hall 5-7 August

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