Peter Martins has the most treacherous job in ballet, one many think could always be done better – a view unlikely to change until the last person who remembers George Balanchine is dead. By that time, of course, Martins himself will be dead and others will get their turns as ballet master in chief of the New York City Ballet.

Martins has held the post for 15 years. A former NYCB principal, he was given the directorship by company co-founders Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to share with choreographer Jerome Robbins (who died last July at age 79). There were other former principal dancers who thought they deserved to inherit the responsibility, many who still snipe green with envy from their seats in the audience. And they are often joined by critics who moan and groan in print when their favorite works receive sketchy performances that corrupt Balanchine's “intended” design.

It can be a devastating experience when a beloved ballet looks nothing like you remember it. But then, classics change along with their audiences: War and Peace at 20 is not War and Peace at 35. So it must be to some extent with Balanchine and Robbins' masterpieces, which are the staples of NYCB's extensive active repertoire of 100 ballets.

There is a significant difference, however, between renewing acquaintance with a Balanchine opus and with one by Tolstoy. Agon, for example, Balanchine's electrifying 1957 collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, must have dancers, piano accompanists and rehearsals in studios with ballet masters teaching the steps. Choreography is subject by its very nature to interpretation, and to the tastes of the individuals who caretake, remember and teach it. The Balanchine and Robbins works survive only by being passed down the generations from dancer to dancer, body to body – an intimate process not without risks.

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the company is bringing four familiar Balanchine works and one Robbins – his final big ballet, Brandenburg, never before seen outside New York – to the Orange County Performing Arts Center for a five-day engagement that begins October 13. The company rarely travels, and while only half of the 90 dancers are coming, this is a golden opportunity.

I saw a range of performances in New York this summer. There were some misses, but at its best, NYCB is the most inspired, fascinating, exciting, refined, musically driven and vital company in the world. Speaking later with Martins by phone while he was in Saratoga Springs at the company's summer home, I asked him how he maintains the integrity of Balanchine's ballets without imposing his own taste. Is that an ideal he even aspires to serve?

“What a gift I was given. I live among these Balanchine ballets. I rehearse them every day,” said the Danish-born Martins, a choreographer in his own right. “When I read that we can't do Balanchine, I think it's preposterous. There's a team of ballet masters here who worked with Balanchine closely. I have not assigned each of these persons their five ballets. We all take care of everything. We cannot feel proprietary. We're here to serve Balanchine, not develop a personal ownership.

“I don't own Stravinsky Violin Concerto, for instance, just because Balanchine choreographed it on me [in 1972]. I looked at a tape of Violin Concerto not long ago. You know what? Maybe people preferred me in it, but the dancers who do it now do it better than me.”

Martins said the way the Balanchine ballets are made, “almost like puzzles, they have their own logic,” it becomes possible to know whether or not you are going in the right direction. “The [puzzle] piece fits or it doesn't fit. And Balanchine changed steps all the time to suit the dancer taking over the role. We might go with the version that works for the individual. There are no rules. You have to trust your memory and taste,” he added. The best ballet master for Balanchine, it seems to Martins, is still Balanchine. It has yet to be seen whether the same principle will apply to Robbins.

Robbins' death, together with the fact that only three current City Ballet members worked with Balanchine, means that the Martins regime is finally on its own. Although a fabled fund-raiser, Martins, 51, is not a desk man. He watches every performance and tries to teach three company classes a week. To him, the most important element in the company's survival is the dancers, and it's on them that he concentrates his time, earning – nearly everyone in ballet agrees – the right to brag.

“Our dancers are the most complete in the world. Nobody can dance as fast as we can at City Ballet,” he said. “When people audition, that's the first thing I see they can't do. It has to do with the inner thighs and collecting the two legs together. An emphasis like scissors closing. The dancers are also quick in their minds.”

Miranda Weese and Philip Neal are Martins proteges. In Costa Mesa, they will dance together in two of Balanchine's showier works, Raymonda Variations and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Both Weese and Neal have assumed several great Balanchine roles, and when they speak about how they learn Balanchine, it becomes clear that no sacred atmosphere exists at the studio, nothing that prevents them from experimenting.

“While it's hard to hear other people's stories about Mr. Balanchine and never to have experienced his presence personally,” said Weese (who studied as a child with Shery Gilbert in Laguna Hills), “you can tell the moment you start doing the steps that it's him. There is a natural ease to his ballets. They don't need to be explained, because he was so inspired by the music. And yet every performance is different. One night maybe I'll hear the high notes, and one night maybe the low, and I will find something new within the same choreography. I don't get bored.”

Neal, too, has found an amazing freedom inside the Balanchine works. But there are limits: Martins and his ballet masters are on constant watch to ensure that true choreographic perversions don't slip in. When they do – and they do – the reason, Neal said, is usually that the dancers do a lot of their learning in performance. The NYCB repertoire is so large and the schedule so demanding — seven performances a week, 26 weeks of the year – that parts are often handed out on short notice.

“You have to come all the time to City Ballet,” Neal said. “No two performances are alike. It's a very experimental company and always has been.”

In most other companies that perform Balanchine, the show doesn't go up unless it's rehearsed within an inch of its life. At NYCB, there is neither the time nor the human resources to idealize perfection – something that Balanchine would not have wanted anyway. “Ballets have short lives,” he said. “Compared to books, to paintings, to plays and pieces of music, they are ephemeral indeed. The ballet audience, like every audience in the theater, always wants something new.”

Martins and his team meet this demand by keeping their dancers alive to what's “new” in Balanchine every night. The next generation will remember.

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