But it was Leslie Carothers who walked away with the evening, playing a central role in Balanchine's very early (1928), very odd Apollo, and in the company premiere, Movements for Piano and Orchestra.
Apollo is usually performed without its strange prologue, in which Leto gives birth to Zeus' child. So I loved seeing the prologue danced here, with Tara Keating, her hair unbound, writhing atop a tall platform, producing a son who's then unswaddled by her handmaidens. This 70-year-old ballet is roughly contemporary with Martha Graham's earliest experiments and reminds us that every idea in the international dance atmosphere was available to Balanchine as he toiled in Paris for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, adjusting classicism to the needs of a new century.
At the New York City Ballet, the role of Apollo is often performed by one of the company's big blond gods, so the work comes to seem like a bunch of acolytes attendant upon a prince. William DeGregory's more modest presence here shifts the focus to the three Muses, of which Carothers, playing Terpsichore, the muse of dance, gets most of his attention and the biggest chance to display the virtues of her craft to Stravinsky's score, which even in the '20s was betraying hints of swing. Like Balanchine, this composer had his ear to the ground.
Amy Aldridge and Arantxa Ochoa completed the strong cast, playing the muses of mime and poetry. As much pageant as ballet, Apollo contains the germs of a lifetime of innovation; it's a great place to begin an encounter with Balanchine.
Central to the evening, in both heft and program order, is a pair of ballets from the early '60s, both to Stravinsky. Monumentum pro Gesualdo was the composer's tribute to the 16th-century Italian madrigal composer. Balanchine styled it in austere black and white, the women all in white with little skirts over their tights. It's a rite of passage between the melodic flights of the early music and the experiments to come; the male dancers toss Martha Chamberlain around, and the six corps couples assume a diagonal formation, rising and falling like pistons in an engine. This piece, one might say, speaks to and for the industrial revolution, whereas its partner, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, stands on the threshold of the information age, sending beacons into cyberspace.
Movements seems to have come from a different planet, proceeding in fits and starts, leaving the dancers to make transitions in silence and then launch, with Stravinsky's serial music, into flurries of action. Seven women in white are all line and sharpness, unfettered by skirts or other adornment. Carothers, partnered by Meredith Rainey, leads them with perfect control.
The impact of the held poses, the abrupt transitions, the windmill arms is as much architectural as choreographic; it's like watching Balanchine deconstruct the Empire State Building.
Program: Balanchine's ``Apollo,'' ``Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,'' ``Monumentum Pro Gesualdo,'' ``Movements for Piano and Orchestra,'' and ``Western Symphony.''
Performing at: Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., tonight at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $14 to $58. Information: 215-893-1999.