New York City Center: 2008 _2009 Preview

Classic Arts Features   New York City Center: 2008 _2009 Preview
New York City Center's history lives on in this season's dance attractions, starting with the Fall for Dance Festival which continues through Sept. 27.

Having begun life in 1943 as a people's theater, a place where New Yorkers could enjoy the performing arts affordably, City Center continues the tradition in this season's dance attractions, starting with the Fall for Dance Festival which, with its $10 tickets and staggering variety, has brought new dance audiences crowding back into the theater since its founding in 2004. The creation of Arlene Shuler, City Center's President and CEO, Fall for Dance opens the season (Sep 17-27) with an exotic smorgasbord of styles and companies.

The variety of dance that follows is just about as wide, in a season that Ms. Shuler describes as "rich, very strong in dance." The emphasis is on living history and shimmering, unexpected small jewels of dance. Returning for a second year to its New York home theater, Christopher Wheeldon's Morphoses (Oct 1-5) will perform not only new and repertory works by Mr. Wheeldon but two choice tidbits by Sir Frederick Ashton, "Monotones II" and the pas de deux from "The Dream."

San Francisco Ballet will return (Oct 10-18) with ballets by choreographers including George Balanchine, Mr. Wheeldon, Jorma Elo and company director Helgi Tomasson. Why dear City Center, so laden with memories, when the troupe performs regularly at newer, sleeker edifices? It is still important to dance in New York, Mr. Tomasson says. And he relishes the comparative intimacy of the 2,700-seat theater. "To come to New York is always exciting, wonderful. The audiences are great. And our smaller ballets seem to go so well at City Center, which is something I enjoy."

That intimacy led American Ballet Theatre to create a second annual season here, solely to present fine-scaled, highly detailed ballets like those of Antony Tudor, whose centennial will be celebrated by Ballet Theatre in its New York City Center season (Oct 21-Nov 2). Tudor's choreography helped shape the company, which will dance five of his ballets and the pas de deux from his magically strange "Romeo and Juliet," all that remains, it seems, of this lost work.

Ballet Theatre will also present a premiere by a rising choreographic star, Lauri Stallings, and company premieres of Jiri Kylian's "Overgrown Path" and of "Company B," Paul Taylor's cheeky, poignant evocation of World War II with songs by the Andrews Sisters. Mr. Taylor's own buoyant company offers its annual spring season, from February 25 to March 15. And the dance season ends with Eifman Ballet in Boris Eifman's dependably stormy "Eugene Onegin."

Much of City Center's history and popularity as a dance theater may be traced to the creation of the New York City Ballet here in 1948. For Lar Lubovitch, whose modern-dance company celebrates its 40th anniversary (Nov 5-9) with a retrospective of Lubovitch classics, the theater was "the pinnacle one could aspire to" in the early 1960s, when Mr. Lubovitch arrived in New York. "It was Balanchine's theater," he says, "and it resonated with very high achievement in dance."

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has added extra pizazz to the mix, in addition to making City Center a holiday destination for its 37 years of performing at the theater. This year Ailey (Dec 3-Jan 4) celebrates its 50th anniversary with a mini-festival of the choreographer's collaborations with Duke Ellington, whom Ailey admired as a great‹and greatly undervalued‹American artist. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform the Ellington scores live.

But the season's highlight may well be the Manhattan debut of the Miami City Ballet (Jan. 21 - 25). The dancers are ready, company director Edward Villella says. The two-program repertory is a carefully chosen mix of sleek modernity and pungent drama, in ballets by Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Mr. Villella grew up as a dancer at City Center, moving up to international stardom through the ranks of New York City Ballet, which had come into being as the theater's resident dance company. "I've been dreaming of this for years. It's where I put my feet down."

Carlos Acosta, the Cuban ballet star, is covered with a similar glory. And his week of dance by a troupe of English ballet dancers, assembled by Mr. Acosta for performances in early February 2009, will likely be one of the theater's most razzle-dazzle presentations this season.

The World Music Institute's vibrant annual New York Flamenco Festival (Feb. 19 - 22) follows Mr. Acosta's ballet dancers into the theater. Perversely, perhaps, the Institute keeps returning to City Center because it is big. Forget about the smoky little taverns crammed with fire-breathing Gypsies where flamenco is said to thrive in Spain. Flamenco may not belong on a formal proscenium stage like that of City Center, Robert Browning, the institute's director, concedes. But a generation of flamenco stars has grown up on such stages. Then there is the theater's core audience, which Mr. Browning describes as joyous, and a staff that he describes as "working almost as a partnership" with dance producers.

Still, this is probably Mr. Villella's season. What was the theater like in the mid-1950s, when he joined City Ballet? All nooks and crannies? Glamorous?

He laughed affectionately. "It had its own grandeur. Glamour, no, and certainly not backstage, which was in dire need of attention." The wings were‹and are‹famously shallow, which led to regular crashes of dancers hurtling off stage into one another, rope-pulling stagehands and even large tube-spouting oil barrels filled with dry ice to create the fog in Balanchine's "Midsummer Night's Dream."

Mr. Villella sighs happily. "Every time I walk into there," he says of City Center, "I am accompanied by memories."

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