Carbro, thanks for the topic.
Helene's comment on PNB -- that she hasn't found something truly bad at PNB and doesn't expect to -- also applies to my 5-year experience with Miami. This is of couse a tribute to the company Artistic Directors. But it may also be a function of their rep system, with a number of set "programs" a year, repeated over a 2-3 week period. It's quite different from the kind of rep system NYCB -- with its huge company and many performances a week -- is obliged to run.
At PNB and Miami, and similar companies, you have to sell the program qua program and convince the audience that there is a theme connecting the various parts. The program generally does not vary during the series of performances. Dancers get lots of time to prepare and rehearse a limited number of ballets. Audience members who read the literature or ads know exactly what to expect. The downside of this is that the ballets tend to disappear from the rep for a number of years after they've been performed in this fashion.
I have a ranking system. Dancers first.
Since I go to multiple performances of the same program, there is always something on the stage that I can focus on and love -- and learn from. Opera glasses help. This has been my experience since I was a teenager long ago when I started with at NYCB at City Center. Lots of the ballets -- mostly non-Balanchine, but also some of his more esoteric stuff -- went over my head in those days. But there were always the dancers and their movements.
There's always someone -- often a demi-solist or corps member -- who is dancing his or her heart out, totally committed to the work and the music. I love this, and will trade perfect technique performed in an emotional vaccume for committed dancing that feels and expresses the music, steps and roles anytime. (And I go with Balanchine in feeling that every dance, even the most abstract, consists of "roles.")
Next is choreography. I favor classical and neo-classical, but also love contemporary if it's based on ballet technique and if the dancers are well prepared. I quickly get irritated with the overly gymnastic Cirque-de-Soileil-wannabes. When I feel this happening, I focus on individual dancers. It's amazing how good for the soul that is. Having taken up ballet class in old age helps enormously. I can feel the movement -- and therefore appreciate how difficult it is to make it look natural and easy.
Third, and this applies only to the classics, is the version presented. Unlike a lot of posters here, I rather like alternative versions, and wish we had a more European tolerance of this. Morris's "Hard Nut" -- yes! Even Matthew Bourne, though the dull and repetitive choreography gets annoying there. I've found much to like in every Nureyev production I've seen (revisions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, R&J, and Cinderella) and accept them as what they are -- one artist's individual VERSION of a standard classic, as happens continually with Shakespeare's plays. I'd love to see some of the far-out versions I read about in European reviews. I have difficulty understanding audience members who want things to be too similar every time. The classics can survive even Kudelka and Martins (who seem currently to be the villains of choice on the fiercely defended Swan Lake turf).