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'States of Grace' Falls a Few Notches

Choreographer James Kudelka's dance for American Ballet Theatre ends irresolutely

The first 27 minutes of James Kudelka's newest dance abound in the kind of ambitious and astonishing movement that audiences have learned to expect from Canada's leading ballet choreographer. But so insipid are the final 30 seconds that the dance remains unfulfilling.

Called ''States of Grace,'' the dance premiered May 11 at Lincoln Center's Metropolitan Opera House. It is one of four new works (Twyla Tharp created the other three) that the American Ballet Theater has commissioned for its current season, which continues through June 17.

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Like ''Cruel World,'' a stunning sequence of pas de deux that Kudelka choreographed for the company last season, ''States of Grace'' is a plotless ballet with accents of Mitteleuropa. Paul Hindemith's dramatic ''Mathis der Maler Symphony,'' inspired by the 16th-century painter Matthias Grunewald, serves as the score.

The dance does not so much begin as awaken.

Susan Jaffe, working mostly en pointe, melts into motion in a trio with Robert Hill and Charles Askegard. As trombones trace the gentle contours of a folk melody, Jaffe and her partners execute a series of smooth and intricate lifts.

Aside from an awkward slip early in the performance, they excelled at such inventions as turning an arabesque into an airborne maneuver.

A corps of male dancers soon joins them on stage. Accompanied by the sound of hunting horns, they resemble a band of horsemen who have just returned from an invigorating ride. Clad in leather and lycra, they can barely contain their optimism and good cheer.

Jaffe, for her part, wears a sort of medieval miniskirt. If the moss and russet hues of these costumes recall the splendid organic palette seen in ''Cruel World,'' it is because Carmen Alie and Denis Levoie designed the wardrobes for both dances. Jennifer Tipton's understated lighting draws out the discrete colors of this earthen rainbow.

Anyone who has seen ''Cruel World'' might also find some of the movement familiar, but not overly so.

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One recurring pose in both dances, which entails touching the ground with one hand and reaching skyward with the other, vaguely resembles a giraffe standing on a distant savanna. Sometimes, when low rumblings resound from the orchestra pit, it seems to warrant a more ominous metaphor.

Serenity seldom prevails in Kudelka's work, and ''States of Grace'' is no exception. With each new ensemble, the costumes become increasingly modern and almost seedy. Amanda McKerrow, dancing with several male partners, seems integral to the dance one moment but incidental and isolated the next.

Moving with ever greater discord, the dancers parallel the shifting texture of the music. Hindemith's placid melody gives way to more complex phrasing, his tempo grows irregular, and darker undercurrents become audible. As the bass line sinks deeper and the horns climb to dizzying heights, another trio gives shape to these Wagnerian contrasts.

Julie Kent, borne upward by Ethan Brown and Christopher Martin, sprawls in the shape of a swastika -- perhaps a reminder that Hindemith began composing the symphony in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power in his native Germany.

Later Kent splays her arms outward as if crucified, calling to mind Grunewald's celebrated triptych on the Isenheim altar.

Such menacing and melancholy images serve not as historical commentary but as elements of an abstract drama to be appreciated on its own terms. In some of Kudelka's earlier work, these tensions yield a better understanding of a world that is not so much cruel as complicated.

But ''States of Grace'' ends too soon to provide any sense of resolution. As Hindemith's score builds to a rousing conclusion, Kudelka rightly brings the three women together for the final trio. But where this passage might have conveyed a sense of newfound self-awareness, it instead appears slight and inauthentic.

Hands joined above their heads, the women cavort like three maidens playing London Bridge or flitting about a May pole. The lights dim, the curtain closes, and the result is a lukewarm finale that fails to satisfy.

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