if asked to describe New York City Ballet in a single word, most dance fans are unlikely to choose "eclectic." The glorious neoclassic aesthetic of its founding choreographers, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, permeates the Company's repertory. But every few years, the prevailing winds shift, and a little El Niño of eclecticism arrives at the New York State Theater under the banner of The Diamond Project.
Founded in 1992 by the Company's Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins, with initial support from the late philanthropist (and avid ballet fan) Irene Diamond, The Diamond Project commissions new ballets, and sometimes new scores, from a range of choreographers and composers and puts the resources of New York City Ballet at their disposal. "We're the leading dance company in America, and it's important for us to show our audience that there are other ways of dancing in the world," says Mr. Martins. "It's a way of showing the public what goes on in ballet in various places."
Mr. Martins chooses choreographers whose work strikes him as interesting and worthwhile, but he has learned that there are no guarantees when you ask a choreographer to come and do his or her thing. "Often," he says, "you're wrong. You invite somebody and you go, 'Oops.' And sometimes the reverse is true‹you're surprised by somebody you were hesitant about. So you look for some spark somewhere that says it's worth giving them a chance."
This year's Diamond Project brings seven new ballets to the New York State Theater during NYCB's spring season, which runs from April 25 to June 25. At least two of them will hew closely to the Company's traditional style ‹Mr. Martins is choreographing a new work to John Corigliano's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra ("The Red Violin"), and Christopher Wheeldon, NYCB's Resident Choreographer, is planning a ballet to Béla Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3 (both have their world premieres at the May 10 Spring Gala). But the remaining five choreographers come to NYCB from other companies, and eclectic is a perfectly good way to describe this group.
First up will be Eliot Feld, the prolific head of Ballet Tech. Although he has always used the classical idiom, much of his work in recent years has been inspired by the street-wise New York City school kids who attend his dance-driven academy. So who knows which way his new solo, to music by Philip Glass, will lean when it bows on April 29, as part of an all-Feld evening.
Then there's Alexei Ratmansky, the artistic director of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet‹home of big, showy story ballets from the 19th century and from the Soviet era. Schooled in Russia but long employed outside it, in Canada and Europe, Mr. Ratmansky is bound to bring a taste of the unfamiliar on June 8, the opening date for his treatment of The Russian Seasons by the contemporary Russian composer Leonid Desiatnikov.
Mauro Bigonzetti, the artistic director of Italy's Aterballetto, has a very European sensibility‹2002 Diamond Project attendees will remember the roller-coaster ride of his Vespro. This year, he's once again creating a piece to a commissioned score by his frequent collaborator Bruno Moretti‹it has its world premiere on May 4. And another wild ride is likely from the hot young Finn Jorma Elo, who began choreographing as a member of the Nederlands Dans Theater. His unorthodox work doesn't look like anybody else's, and he has chosen music by Biber and Vivaldi for his NYCB debut on June 16.
Though European by birth, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux is quite close to NYCB, both literally and figuratively. Longtime fans of NYCB will surely remember his years dancing for Balanchine and Robbins alongside his wife, Patricia McBride. They now run the North Carolina Dance Theatre, and his new piece, to music by NYCB Composer in Residence Bright Sheng, should have that NYCB family feel when it opens on May 25.
Their approaches may vary, but The Diamond Project choreographers do share at least one characteristic: their high regard for the NYCB dancers. "For me," says Mr. Bigonzetti, "the most important thing is curiosity. In New York City Ballet, everybody is generous and curious about my work."
Mr. Elo agrees: "Everybody's mind is open," he says. "All the dancers are hungry to make something that's never been seen before."
To Mr. Feld, the relish with which NYCB dancers tackle Diamond Project works makes perfect sense. "Whenever you live with something for a very long time," he says of the NYCB classics, "it takes on a quality of domesticity." The Diamond Project, he says, allows the dancers to have "interesting flings."
Occasionally, Mr. Martins says, a guest choreographer will come to him after a couple of rehearsals complaining that the dancers can't perform in his or her style‹that they're not, well, eclectic enough. "I calm them down, and I say, 'Try them out; you'll be surprised.' And invariably they come back to me a few days later and they say, 'My god, you're right‹they can do it!' "
Sylviane Gold, a former dance critic at Newsday, writes frequently about the arts.