Although the Berlin Ballet's season at the Metropolitan Opera will most likely be remembered for its full evening spectacles, it does perform in the more typical format of a mixed bill.
Indeed, the program is no less than a medley of European style. It consists of ballets by John Cranko, who brought the Stuttgart Ballet to fame and fortune; Hans van Manen, a leading exponent of abstract ballet in the Netherlands; Dirgit Cullberg, an expressionist from Scandinavia; and finally, a Russian pas de deux modeled after Petipa.
One might assume (and hope) that variety of style would yield variety of experience. But the evening boils down to an indifferently danced mush, in which the weaknesses of the choreographers overshadow their virtues. A prime case in point is Cranko's version of the "Firebird," created in 1964 but only now receiving an American premiere. Noted for theatrical pyrotechnics, Cranko would seem to have a wonderful vehicle in the blazing Stravinsky score and fantastic scenario. His conception, however, lacks an incisive point of view.
Supposedly a valiant hero, the Prince is actually a crude peasant as unworthy of the Princess' love as of the Firebird's magic feather. His amused reaction to the sorcerer and his retinue of monsters befits their childlike pranks, but one argues Cranko's fey conception of evil, even if the "Firebird" is only a fairy tale.
Cranko reserves his feeling for the fantastic in the figure of the bird herself, a wild, proud creature strongly danced by Eva Evdokimova. Cranko's Firebird is uniquely angular and a trifle menacing. These qualities could impart a special magic to the production, except that Cranko's love of acrobatics proves his downfall. One becomes so preoccupied with watching the bird climb up and down the Princess' shoulders -- and even across them -- that the image of a soaring flame gets derailed. The Firebird on a Jungle Jim is a more accurate description of the encounter.
In "Five Tangos," van Manen can't lose images because he's not pursuing them. In fact, it's difficult to figure out why he's made this ballet. One supposes that he was attracted to the humorously mordant tango score by Astor Piazzolla, and yet his choreography for a lead couple and ensemble is not so much dryly witty as dry. The ensamble performs accordingly.
One of the lead dancers happens to be Rudolf Nureyev, who, dutifully following van Manen's antitheatrically approach, wouldn't even indulge in a bit of archbacked flair. Here is one case where some good old ham would have saved the day.
That department was left to the Panovs, who turned the good-natured bravura of the "Don Quixote" pas de deux into a coarse stunt. To call it a circus act would be to malign that institution. Valery Panov, of course, was never a pure classicist, but his wife, Galina, seems to have lost fluidity and good taste since she last danced here with the Berlin Ballet two years ago. Nor is she a capable actress in this case, with her pouty, one-layered portrayal of the heroine in Cullberg's "Miss Julie."
Nureyev is a good actor, but his interpretation of the butler is as thin as Panova's. And yet were it not for Nureyev and the Panovs, the Berlin Ballet would probably not make it to these shores. The question is whether the Berlin Ballet would be viable even with Nijinsky in toe, and believe me, the question is rhetorical.