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This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on May 11, 2006.

May 11 (Bloomberg) — Imagine entertaining a gala audience with a pair of new ballets set to music unfriendly to dancing.

Inexplicably, this is what the New York City Ballet attempted last night with the premieres of contributions to its Diamond Project by the company’s artistic director, Peter Martins, and its resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. Creativity always means risk; still, the evening faltered.

Martins’s “The Red Violin” takes its name from the subtitle of the score it’s set to, John Corigliano’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The music ranges from eerie to ominous, yet never provides the rhythmic support dancing thrives on.

The ballet, peopled by two main couples and two subordinate pairs, seems to be set in a dark underworld. There, the women — strong, fluent, emphatic dancers led by Jennie Somogyi and Sara Mearns — are powerful goddesses, not necessarily benign ones.

The movement most often is weighted, sculptural and peculiar. The prevailing mood is apocalyptic, as is often the case in contemporary ballet. What’s more, as is often the case with Martins, significant-other responsibilities are divided, and romance arrives in dreams that are more like nightmares.

Martins’s ingenuity is evident in a double duet for the principals. One couple, then the other, performs successive bits of the choreography. Then the two pairs join to dance as if they formed a single organism.

The feat leaves you duly impressed. But it has no theatrical effect or human resonance, so it also leaves you cold.

Gray Tutus

Wheeldon co-opted Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 for his “Evenfall.” Appropriately costumed in shadowy gray, it’s a tutu ballet, but a mighty strange one.

Wheeldon is a remarkable craftsman, and he deploys his oddly matched principal couple (the stately Miranda Weese and the flyaway virtuoso Damian Woetzel) and a 12-woman, six-man ensemble intelligently and elegantly. What’s more, he includes a subtext of subtle references to “Swan Lake” meant, I think, to charm veteran fans.

But the dancing is fragmented, sparsely strewing images across the stage without ever getting them to cohere or to form a meaningful relationship with the score. The best segment, suggesting the nostalgia and melancholy of lost love, treats the Bartok as nothing more than mood music.

Given such lackluster fare as Martins’s and Wheeldon’s latest efforts, why does the City Ballet’s Diamond Project keep on going? Billed as “a festival of new choreography,” it’s now in its sixth incarnation, with few, if any, memorable results.

Creating Dance

There are two reasons for the making-it-new activity. One: George Balanchine set the example. He took the august classical ballet tradition he’d inherited from the 19th century and thrust it — technique, repertory and the training of dancers — into the future. The New York City Ballet, created to house his genius, naturally has an inclination to look forward rather than back.

Two: No dance company can survive if it presents old works exclusively. Audiences won’t tolerate that; neither will the dancers. (And underwriters are reluctant to pay for it.) Everyone involved has an insatiable appetite for the next step.

Sadly, since Balanchine’s death in 1983, the classical- ballet world has produced no talent that comes even close to his. Nearly all of today’s ostensibly cutting-edge works seem same old, same old, while the inventive beauty of “Serenade” (1934), “Concerto Barocco” (1948), “Agon” (1957) and so on remains astonishing — when they’re given intelligent and loving productions.

Keeping Focused

Some would argue that to pave the way for the next Balanchine, you must continue to search for viable new work and provide it with a platform. But it’s like looking for orchids in the desert.

City Ballet would do well to devote less time, money and attention to the shallow stimulation of novelty and more to filling its primary obligation: doing justice to the Balanchine masterworks in its custody. This job has been neglected for some time.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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