Mixing dance and music, and making it work
There is novelty, and there is new work. And sometimes one goes under the guise of the other.
The New York City Ballet offered all combinations thereof during the opening week of its winter season at the New York State Theater (which runs through Feb. 20). The novelty was a uniquely conceived program celebrating the newly renovated State Theater. Both the City Ballet and New York City Opera are responsible for the theater's new acoustical system. How, then, could both reap the honors on the same program, yet avoid an incongruous shuttle between dance and opera?
The solution was felicitous. The two companies share composers - among them Verdi, Gluck, Richard Strauss, and Leonard Bernstein. With the composer connection providing a smooth link between singing and dancing, the program alternated between an aria from ''Candide'' and an excerpt from the Bernstein-Robbins ballet ''Fancy Free,'' between the usual vocal treatment of ''Der Rosenkavalier'' and Balanchine's choreographic treatment of the same Strauss score.
Although the program could only whet the audience's divided appetites, it made musical sense. And so what could have been a hodgepodge novelty act turned out to be a truly new way of presenting different art forms.
The new work, which enters the regular repertory of the City Ballet, is new only in the sense that we haven't seen this particular choreography (by Joseph Duell, a soloist with the company) to this particular score (''La Creation du Monde,'' by Milhaud). Written in 1923, the music is already famous for its landmark use of jazz in a concert-hall situation. Duell's visualization of that music already looks tired. But within the context of the City Ballet's standard repertory, this ''Creation du Monde'' is unusual. It's a novelty.
As exemplified by the works of George Balanchine, director of the City Ballet , most of the troupe's ballets show us steps first and atmosphere second. Although the ballets may be jazzy or romantic, passionate or reserved, their accent is always anchored in the classical language of ballet. Duell's ballet works in reverse. As the curtain opens to reveal a congealed mass of bodies crouched and writhing on a dimly lighted stage, atmosphere is the first thing to hit you.
It's also the only thing, because Duell never does put any steps into his ''creation.'' It's all posture and pose - signatures that one can easily associate with jazz but that don't actually pinpoint the jazz idiom, or any idiom. It's as if Duell were riding on the coattails of the audience's recognition. As the dancers wiggle and squirm and kick up their heels, we know what they mean to be doing. It works by implication, not exposition.
How strange to see Duell's amorphous bag of signals sandwiched between the celestial clarity of Balanchine's ''Divertimento No. 15,'' done to Mozart, and his brooding but nonetheless articulate ''Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3.''
As a fledgling choreographer, of course, Duell can't hold a candle to the likes of a Balanchine. But in the case of ''La Creation du Monde,'' it's the approach rather than the result that is so incongruous to the City Ballet's aesthetic. In comparison, a song-and-dance format seems seamless.