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New Steps for Tchaikovsky

A choreography contest inspires four works that breathe fire into the popular composer's music

THE challenge for choreographers who responded to Boston Ballet's third International Choreography Competition was this: to create new ballets to music by Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Last spring, the audition videotapes began pouring in - more than 100 from around the world. Four choreographers were chosen to premiere their ballets at Boston's Wang Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 3 to 13. In addition to cash prizes, the four were awarded medals: one gold, one silver, and two bronze.

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The program, called ``Tchaikovsky Anew,'' continues the Boston Ballet's 30th-anniversary season, and its celebration of Tchaikovsky's 100th birthday, with ballets set to his scores. While most of the ballets are popular works such as ``The Nutcracker'' and ``Swan Lake,'' this program provides an opportunity not only for emerging choreographers to flex their creative muscles, but also for the audience to stretch its notion of the ways ballet can be interpreted.

The gold medal and $3,000 went to Daniel Pelzig, who has choreographed for the Joffrey II Dancers, Juilliard Dance Ensemble, Atlanta Ballet, and is currently a resident choreographer for the Santa Fe Opera Company. Mr. Pelzig's ``Cantabile'' is set to an orchestrated version of ``String Quartet No. 1.'' For this classically inclined romantic dance, the background is black with a large shimmering moon that rises and falls as 10 dancers flit across the stage. Pelzig experiments with male dancers partnering each other as well as females. The most exquisite movement occurs at the end when one of the male dancers gracefully slides a ballerina upside down in front of him. He raises his leg to the side, and she arches upward holding on to it.

Lucinda Hughey, winner of the silver medal and $2,000, was a principal dancer for the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. She has also choreographed ballets for that company and for numerous workshops. Ms. Hughey selected Anton Arensky's ``Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky'' and Tchaikovsky's ``Legend: Christ Had a Garden'' for her work, called ``Summer Dreams.''

Four pairs of dancers dressed in a luminescent rainbow of leotards and skirts take the stage before a background of skies that change from soft morning hues to twilight shadows. The music is light, rich with violins, and the dancers' steps are whimsical, elegant, sometimes frolicking. Hughey includes acrobatic jumps, cartwheels, and somersaults in the work.

A bronze medal and $1,000 were awarded to Stephen Baynes for ``Rococo Variations'' set to Tchaikovsky's score of the same name. Mr. Baynes has performed and choreographed for the Australian Ballet and won that company's 1988 Choreographic Competition. His work, which uses 12 dancers, is the most classical of the four ballets. It emphasizes shape and line in cleanly executed but fluid movements.

The Boston-based duo of Amy Spencer and Richard Colton also received a bronze medal and $1,000. Ms. Spencer and Mr. Colton have performed with such companies as Twyla Tharp Dance, American Ballet Theater, and Joffrey Ballet. ``Before Ever After,'' choreographed to ``Concert Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra,'' is an abstract tale about a young girl and her relations with a cast of characters, ranging from Society to The Dark to Her Light. This work is by far the most daring; it combines elements of ballet and modern dance. The set is also adventurous, most notably for the large suspended objects with leg-like protrusions, which looked as if they might have dropped down from another planet.

The judges for the competition included Sam Miller, director of Jacob's Pillow; Cynthia Gregory, prima ballerina; Francis Mason, editor of Ballet Review; and Barbara Weisberger, founder of the Pennsylvania Ballet and director of the Carlisle Project.

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The competition's roots go back to 1978 when Boston Ballet's founder, E. Virginia Williams, engineered ``The Choreographer's Showcase.'' In 1988, artistic director Bruce Marks restarted it and made it more formal and competitive. The Boston competition is one of few opportunities available to emerging choreographers who want to showcase their works, Mr. Marks says.

``Everyone in the ballet field is talking about a dearth of choreographical talent, and yet no one is either able or willing to take a chance on new people,'' Marks says. ``This is one way of finding out where they are and another way of giving them a chance.''

Previous winners have gone on to enjoy successful careers and produce a great deal of work, Marks adds. For example, Monica Levy, who won a silver medal six years ago, has used the recognition of the competition and prize to advance her international career.

``Ballet ... has become so much more about who performs it rather than what's being performed,'' Marks says. ``We need to make it more about the choreography - having that on a more equal footing.''

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