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'Star choreographers' get top billing as regional ballets visit Big Apple

One might argue that bringing regional ballet companies to New York is like bringing coals to Newcastle. Another might counter that exposure to these groups is an antidote to Eastern Seaboard myopia.

For this reason, and probably just for the novelty of the idea, two theaters in Brooklyn have run a year-long series of regional-ballet programs. Brooklyn College sponsored groups from Atlanta; Cincinnati; Oakland, Calif.; Washington; and New Jersey. The Brooklyn Academy of Music put Easterners in touch with companies from San Francisco; Pennsylvania; Los Angeles; Cleveland; Akron, Ohio; and, most recently, the Houston Ballet.

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Now that both series are drawing to a close, summations might be in order. Well, the experience has certainly been eye-opening, but I can't say that the eyes have been opened to oodles of wonderful things. Considering the vast possibilities promised by these festivals, the pleasures have been scattered and few -- some nice dancers here and there, a few interesting items in repertory.

One of those items the Houston Ballet brought, an early work by John Cranko called "The Lady and the Fool." Not only is this fable designed with sophisticated humor and solid invention, it also fills out the profile of a choreographer primarily known for his later extravaganzas with the Stuttgart Ballet.

"The Lady and the Fool" has all the rich detail and theatrical flair of the more famous Cranko style, but its unpretentiousness is singular. If "The Lady and the Fool" brings the unhappy news that Cranko's artistry deteriorated as he matured, it rediscovers a valuable ballet. The Houston Ballet dances it with special verve, as if it knows it has hit upon a rare gem.

Other such rediscoveries could be the special province of regional troupes. The Cincinnati Ballet came up with a plum in a revival of Ruth Page and Bentley Stone's "Frankie and Johnny." For the most part, however, the groups that have played in New York this year are showcases for their artistic directors. But in the long history of ballet, only a few companies have put all their eggs in one basket and fewer still have survived the experiment. Only a genius resident choreographer justifies the one-man arrangement.

Yet the regional companies treat this setup as if it were par for the course. The groups whose star choreographer was especially untalented appeared downright arrogant. Even respectable but not terribly original choreography like that offered by Heinz Poll via the Ohio Ballet tended to be at the vanity-house level when it presented nothing but Poll's ballets on one of its two programs. It is ironic yet logical that the Ohio Ballet seemed more mature when the dancers were grappling with choreography of high-class quality, such as Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco."

The Houston Ballet has sense enough to be eclectic, but even so its mixed bill was a blunder. Although it drew upon three choreographers -- Cranko, Glen Tetley, and artistic director Ben Stevenson -- Tetley and Stevenson are so similar in their heavy German romanticism that they cancel each other out. And just how much Angst and gloom does the company think an audience can take? Were they trying to present themselves as a fortress of "high art"? If straightforwardness and cheerfulness are definitions of "low art," then I'll still take Cranko's ballet any day.

Classical ballet is one of the hardest techniques in the world to master. And, goodness knows, real choreographic talent is as rare in New York as it is in the regions. It would have been silly to expect great dance experiences from the two series, but such poor judgment in p rogramming has been inexcusable and probably avoidable.

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