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One Ballet Company in Search of a Vision. The highlight of '88 was the American Music Festival, where battered dancers struggled through an object-laden universe

THE New York City Ballet's American Music Festival was the most dramatic dance event of 1988, crystallizing what are, for me, the three burning issues in dance today: How to achieve artistic momentum when creative talent is at a low ebb.

What is the nature and status of classicism in a profoundly a-historical period?

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What should be the relationship between a rigorous, partly arcane, avowedly high-art form and the vernacular culture that defines contemporary life?

The festival, considered an artistic downer by the critics and a glitzy success by its audience, put on display a process that City Ballet has not used for five years, since the death of George Balanchine. Co-ballet masters Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins had acted more or less as caretakers since 1983, but with the festival Martins symbolically took control of the company and ended the Balanchine empire. Suddenly the situation of the company seemed to crack open, exposing a desperate uncertainty not only about what to offer in the way of new ballets and new styles, but about the value of the Balanchine repertory on which its existence is based.

As a whole, the festival's three weeks of new and old ballets revealed a management in search of modernity. All in one stroke City Ballet was trying to resolve what to do about high art versus populism, to fashion an image of dancers, dancing subjects, and dance action that would spark recognition in the audience. Given the artificiality of theater dance, it normally takes a singular vision and a lot of persistence to shape a convincing new aesthetic. Balanchine's was still evolving even after five decades. Robbins miraculously hit it with his first ballet, ``Fancy Free.''

Peter Martins, as a choreographer, hasn't shown this need to realize a personal vision, and the American Music Festival offered a diffuse and eclectic panorama of choreographic approaches rather than showcasing a single ideology. Besides commissioning trendy items from far and wide, Martins spent lavishly on costumes and sets from trendy artists. He might have been intentionally repudiating City Ballet's scenic and choreographic austerity, its identity as an inner sanctum where the contemplation of dancing is the only reward.

In place of the contemplation of dancing, the festival offered the wry or bleak or hi-tech comments on the modern condition that seem to be modern choreography's staple fare. Prominently, there was the fervent, violent plastique of the European opera house school, led by William Forsythe (``Behind the China Dogs''). In Forsythe's universe, men and women streak and slither through pleasure-seeking, pain-inflicting, inevitably discordant relationships. Objects of worldly origin or great beauty are placed around the dancers, but go unnoticed. Noises batter them, words often issue from loudspeakers, and harsh lights bleach their faces. They struggle on.

The object-filled universe is a favorite choreographic metaphor that often supersedes or precludes dancing, as in Eliot Feld's gadget-ridden ``The Unanswered Question.'' Objects are also signifiers, as every post-structuralist knows, and dance, the most abstract of arts, increasingly shapes itself to the inescapable literalness of the world. So the stereotyped ``Chinese'' women in Martins's ``The Chairman Dances'' were somehow legitimized, via a score from John Adams's opera ``Nixon in China,'' as a reference to international relations. No need to examine any distressing political problems; a light reminder that China is out there lets us know Martins watches TV.

THE most anybody can do about our real predicament, artists seem to agree, is to keep posted. Postmodernism is knowing all the symbol systems and being able to adapt and collage them for satiric or entertaining effect. Not, surely, for the lessons any of them may contain. Bart Cook's clever though unsuccessful postmodern exercise ``Into the Hopper'' sets a detective story in a museum, where the modern paintings (L'eger, Magritte, Hopper) come to life, sometimes enacting scenes from well-known ballets.

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At the opposite pole from the sendup as a response to the enormity of our problems is minimalism, and in Laura Dean's ``Space'' we did contemplate dancing, in fact dancing almost detached from dancers. Dean's spinning, flying beings are centered and secure within the implacable ensemble machine they're creating. They are dispassionate, drained of all toxins except the need to perform.

The qualities these modernists labor at so reductively and with eventually numbing effect - physicality, conflict, wittiness, paradox - have always formed a subtle web underlying the step-structures of classical ballet, especially Balanchine's. It's ironic that the Balanchine code is in such peril now, that an institutional embodiment of tradition and lasting value turns out to have been dependent for its vitality on one individual after all.

The death of Robert Joffrey last spring leaves the classical repertory of the Joffrey Ballet in danger for the same reason. Who but the energetic, visionary fanatics of dance can redeem the classical heritage from the stodgy, prescriptive canons of conservatism on the one hand and the clamorous whims of fashion on the other?

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