Balanchine's bow to the Stravinsky centennial
June could well be called Stravinsky month. Every concert hall and radio station, it seems, has been playing Stravinsky in honor of the composer's 100th birthday - June 18, to be exact.
George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, the guiding forces of the New York City Ballet, recently stood on the stage of the New York State Theater, paying tribute to the gentleman whom Balanchine calls the greatest composer for dance who ever lived. Then the curtain rose for the final performance of the City Ballet's official Stravinsky celebration (although events in the composer's honor will continue into July).
It is no surprise that the biggest Stravinsky tribute should come, not from the concert world, but from the world of ballet - Balanchine's ballet, to be exact. Stravinsky has always been a prime inspiration to Balanchine, starting when he was a student in Leningrad. The already-famous composer and still fledgling choreographer met in 1924 under the aegis of Diaghilev, and the artistic relationship flowered into a series of close collaborations in America. Thus, the City Ballet's celebration not only duly marks the anniversary of the commonly acknowledged musical genuis of this century, but also gives thanks to a personal friend.
The personal note can be seen in many ways. First of all there is the choice of music, which is rather idiosyncratic. Instead of setting new ballets to such famous ballet scores as ''Firebird'' and ''Petrouchka,'' Balanchine has chosen mostly small, unfamiliar pieces. It is revealing that, although a ''Firebird'' already exists in the City Ballet repertory, it was not performed during the festival proper.
As Balanchine might say, it's old hat. Everybody professes love for Stravinsky's music, but do they really know it? Well, Balanchine's tribute rectifies the situation. From June 10 to 18, the company danced to 29 pieces of music - 14 of them newly choreographed - and there was not a war horse in the group.
This outpouring of music and choreographic endeavor speaks for itself. This is the company that, when it does it, does it big. In spirit, anyway.
But the results have proved rather small. At the moment, Balanchine is not as prolific as he has been, so much of the new work was doled out to house choreographers. And Balanchine's preferences do not necessarily hit the spot for John Taras, Peter Martins, or Jacques d'Amboise.
About ''Agon,'' greatest of all the Stravinsky-Balanchine collaborations, Balanchine has written: ''Stravinsky's strict beat is authority over time, and I have always felt that a choreographer should place unlimited confidence in this control. For me at any rate, Stravinsky's rhythmic invention gives the greatest stimulus. A choreographer cannot invent rhythms, he can only reflect them in movement.''
Generally speaking, most of the new ballets reflect too much and, rather than showing confidence in Stravinsky's control, abdicate to him. Ballets such as Taras's ''Concerto for Piano and Winds'' and Martins's ''Piano-Rag-Music'' and ''Concerto for Two Solo Pianos'' miss the large musical picture. They're small and tight. They're all about thrusts and squiggles. They're about Stravinsky's notes, but not about his sonorities or large rhythms.
The festival's repetition in July in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and in the fall in Washington, D.C., will yield new perspectives.