American Ballet Theatre took us twice Tuesday night to a shadowy, enchanted forest ruled by a flock of otherworldly creatures, first in Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides” and later in Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” a one-act take on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
But the setting of these two works is where their similarities end, both in construction and execution. The 1908 Fokine work is a plotless reverie defined by its gossamer elegance, while the 1964 Ashton work is a highly narrative tale that is heavy on hijinks and bold, assured dancing. At the troupe’s opening-night performance at the Kennedy Center, one was carried off pitch-perfectly, while the other lacked the magic that its dreamy simplicity demands.
“The Dream” was intoxicating, a fantasy that was instantly immersive because its romances are so finely crafted and, on this occasion, were danced so sincerely. After just a few minutes with this bevy of heart-on-their-sleeve fairies and mortals, we become deeply invested in how their passions play out.
Julie Kent was a font of regal beauty as fairy queen Titania. In her climactic pas de deux with Marcelo Gomes in the role of the fairy king Oberon, Kent plunged into splits and spilled back into deep arches with all the stateliness of a queen, but sans any of the aloofness. She also was remarkably convincing when Titania is under a spell that makes her lust after a shabby mortal in a donkey costume. It’s a section that must be tempting to overact because it’s so silly, but Kent’s playful, doe-eyed energy was that of someone genuinely entranced by her cartoonish suitor.
Surely there’s not a ballet dancer today who is better suited than Herman Cornejo for the part of Puck. Cornejo often imbues his dancing with a certain impish charm, and what vehicle could be better for that than the role of this elfin prankster? Cornejo also reminded us what a brilliant technician he is, with straddle jumps that looked like they came off a trampoline and pirouettes that stopped on a dime after a jaw-dropping number of spins. (Was that six rotations? Eight? He does them too fast to count.)
The lead dancers had strong support in the corps of fairies that rounded out the cast. This ensemble was essential to creating the spirit of mischief that permeates the entire work. The pixies bobbed side to side with the jittery electricity that might result if a hummingbird were hopped up on caffeine. When they zoomed across stage en masse doing bourrees, they had the speed of cockroaches skittering away from a light.
The group’s power and clarity of intention in the Ashton work made a puzzlement of their performance earlier in the evening in “Les Sylphides.” In the Fokine work, the corps seemed disengaged, unconnected to each other and the essence of the dance. Maybe it was all the posing — Fokine uses the corps dancers like set pieces in this work, requiring them to stand perfectly still for long periods of time between spells of dancing. That is deceptively difficult for a performer, both on one’s muscles and ability to focus.
But whatever the reason, the execution of this ethereal dance felt sloppy. In a section in which the women were supposed to be traveling shoulder-to-shoulder in a line, there was a temporary gap between dancers. When the group was supposed to be swaying with the unfailing continuity of a pendulum, there were moments of quickness that interrupted the flow. Those kinds of blips made it hard to fall under the dance’s spell.
Another piece on the program, “Aftereffect,” is the third work that principal dancer Gomes has made for ABT since 2012. The first Washington performance of this dance was pleasant enough to watch, if not terribly memorable. Set to the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” it is an 11-minute tide of steps that leaves little room for contemplation. The all-male cast of eight dancers is given an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink movement vocabulary: soaring grand jetes, hands that wiggle like windshield wipers, luscious shoulder rolls, and the stilting walks of someone shackled to a ball and chain. They dance it well, and with an admirable sense of gusto and daring.
But the choreography doesn’t feel especially distinctive from other contemporary ballets, or for that matter, from the works of modern-dance choreographers such as Mark Morris.
American Ballet Theatre performs works by Fokine, Ashton and Gomes on Wednesday and “Don Quixote” on Thursday through Sunday at the Kennedy Center.