DANCE / Does the shoe still fit?: Balanchine is gone, Baryshnikov has yet to return. But try telling New Yorkers that they're not making all the right moves

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The Independent Culture
During the 19th century, New York was accustomed to picking crumbs off the rich dance tables of Europe. Italian ballerinas, Russian ballerinas and French ballerinas regularly toured a dance- hungry America, yet no native ballet emerged to fill the gaps between. By the late 1930s, however, America had not only produced the first great choreographers of modern dance but had begun to evolve its own ballet tradition. Since the 1950s New York has been the dance capital of the world.

Here in Britain we take that notion, rather humbly, for granted. But it is only on a visit to New York that its truth smacks you full in the face. Among the city's companies and choreographers are New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey and Eliot Feld; Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Bill T Jones, Stephen Petronio - and that's just the internationally famous tip of the iceberg. Working alongside the big names is a complex dance subculture that surfaces in smaller New York venues and at festivals round the world. In the tiny space of Manhattan, dance seems to be happening everywhere and all the time.

But New York does have its problems - the most public of which is American Ballet Theater. During the 1980s, under the direction of Mikhail Baryshnikov, ABT embarked on a flamboyant roll that has come to a sheepish stall since he departed. Financially things are so bad the company has had to lay off its dancers for half the year, and the current director, Kevin McKenzie, has won few fans. His new production of The Nutcracker is 'frankly disastrous' according to Clive Barnes, critic of the New York Post and Dance Magazine, and there are rumours of deep discord between dancers and management.

New York City Ballet has also had to think hard about its future, contemplating what kind of life it can have after Balanchine's death. For decades the company's style, repertoire and training centred around Balanchine - and, as one of ballet's few canonised geniuses, he's a hard act to follow. Peter Martins, the current Ballet Master in Chief, has, however, been making brave efforts to stop NYCB solidifying into a Balanchine museum. He holds regular seasons of newly commissioned works (11 new ballets this spring) and, though his choice of choreographer and music isn't always admired (Mark Morris once dubbed his American Music Festival 'the Peter Martins record collection festival'), NYCB probably manages to present more new work than any other ballet company - at a time when the classical world is experiencing a dismal recession in choreographic talent.

American critics are split over the quality of NYCB's dancers under Martins' regime. Just as we wrangle over how much the Royal Ballet's style has deteriorated after Ashton, so, says Barnes, 'critics like Tobi Tobias think NYCB is on the brink of ruin, while Anna Kisselgoff thinks everything is fine'.

Certainly when I saw the company perform last week there wasn't much to carp about. Watching NYCB's dancers on the huge stage of the New York State Theater, rather than the smaller spaces they play in Britain, is breathtaking in itself. They cover ground with a speed and authority that make British ballet look a touch knock-kneed. In Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free (three girls meet three sailors on shore leave), the small cast not only dominate the stage with the stretch and confidence of their movement, but, 50 years after the ballet was first made, still invest the roles with an outrageous and winning Broadway sass - their every move inflected with a louche, loud- mouthed, gabby New York accent.

In Symphony in C, where Balanchine floods the stage with dancers, the company's energy and scale hit you like a force of nature. Leading the cast was Merrill Ashley, now in her forties and with a permanent hip injury, but watching her was like seeing Antoinette Sibley perform Ashton at the close of her career. Despite an inevitable stiffness and loss of attack, both dancers simply breathe the style of the choreography. With Ashley, Balanchine's line, angle and speed are built into her body - she can move fast, off balance and with a knife-edge detail, apparently without effort. Darci Kistler, the youngest of the great Balanchine ballerinas, reflects NYCB style at its most sumptuous, dancing with a luxurious stretch in the leg, a regal sensuousness in the curve of her arms and body that lacks any self-conscious assumption of grandeur.

In comparison, the newer dancers in the company smooth out some of the more piquant idiosyncrasies of style, but they possibly don't crackle with the wit and sharpness the company had under Balanchine. But the soloist Ethan Stiefel, dancing in the third movement, would be a star in any era. His huge jump is clean, agile and electric with possibilities - he makes you believe he could prolong, embellish and re-invent each leap if only the music gave him time. His body, compact though it is, cuts eager sweeping curves through space and many are touting him as the next Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov brings his own company, the White Oak Dance Project, to New York next week. Extraordinarily, this will be the first time White Oak has performed in the city - some say Misha was so wounded by the bad reviews of his production of Swan Lake that he swore never to perform in New York again. His present programme can hardly fail, though, including works by Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris and, a rarity, a new dance from Jerome Robbins.

White Oak is also performing Merce Cunningham's Signals and will be dedicating the whole season to Cunningham, who is 75 in April. This is just the beginning of the party, though, since Cunningham and his own company follow straight on White Oak's heels with their annual season at City Center. Since the death of Martha Graham, Cunningham is now the grandest, most revered icon of American modern dance. However, his company say that they get larger audiences and make more money when they perform in Europe.

While New York is a dance fan's heaven, it is a financial hell for many companies. Not only does any season have to compete for its public with a cityful of other dance activities, the costs of showing work have gone ballistic. Theatre rental and union fees are close to prohibitive and the result is a sharp drop in resident company performances as well as fewer visiting companies. (A recent exception was the Royal Ballet, which garnered some rather good reviews last year. Darcey Bussell also made an individual guest appearance with NYCB two weeks ago to genuine ovations.)

High prices are even tougher on the small companies. In the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, young militant choreographers could rent cheap loft space for living, rehearsing and performing. Now those properties have been acquisitioned by yuppies and it's much harder for fledgling artists to work. The choreographer Twyla Tharp believes she wouldn't have had a chance today: 'I wouldn't get dancers of the same calibre working for nothing.' On the other hand, Deborah Jowitt, critic for the Village Voice, says she thinks choreographers have always been poor and that just as many people are still working.

Jowitt will, however, admit to a sneaking nostlagia for the early 1970s, when so many bold, mad and engrossing ideas were revolutionising dance. Broad and energetic as today's fringe scene may be, it has only thrown up one choreograher in the Eighties and Nineties who compares with Taylor, Brown or Tharp: Mark Morris.

Not everyone in New York thinks that Mark Morris is a genius, but most acknowledge the confidence, range and singularity of his talent. In Joan Acocella's recent and riveting biography, Morris emerges as a man as complex as his dances: innocent and ironic, utopian and angry, sentimental and scholarly. For the three years that his company were resident in Brussels, American critics and fans used, untypically, to cross the Atlantic regularly to see his work. Now that Morris is back in New York, many will feel they have no reason to step out of Manhattan again. Insular, smug, overprivileged as their outlook might seem, New Yorkers believe that most dance life is there.

(Photographs omitted)