Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The Joffrey Ballet was back at Wolf Trap Monday night - the company has been a regular visitor each year since the facility opened in 1971 - and the first of their four programs illustrated the formula that has assured the troupe its solid popular following.
There were a couple of bright, lightweight ballets by contemporary masters: Ashton and Balanchine; a "heavy" modernistic work created for the company by Argentinian choreographer Oscar Araiz; and a flash finish, the latest meringue by resident choreographer Gerald Arpino.
It's a good formula, and it works. A sizeable audience - over 4,000 one would guess - turned out for the evening, and demonstrated a very generous, spontaneous enthusiasm. Among the crowd, by the way, was Rudolf Nureyev, who opened with the London Festival Ballet at the Kennedy Center last night. The company, as handsome as ever in overall prospect, danced well, with plenty of the youthful verve that is the Joffrey's special trademark.
If you sense a reservation coming, you're right. For all the sparkle and whir of the evening, it had some of the defects of its virtues - there's something about a Joffrey performance (not always but often) that has the prepackaged look all formulas induce, and despite the considerable choreographic merit of the offerings, one came away from Monday night's assortment with a deflating sense of flimsiness.
Not surprisingly, the major choreographic satisfactions came from the Aston and Balanchine works. Ashton's "Les Patineurs" ("The Skaters"), dating from 1937, is an absolutely charming ballet, so exquisite in form that it goes well beyond charm. It's a portrait of skaters in a park, marked by that remarkable sense of period, place and mood that is Ashton's genius, yet encompassed on its dance features within a wondrously lucid and sparing classicism.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about it is the way Ashton has turned the constraint of trying to imitate ice-skating - which he does with lots of simple slides, hops, spins and lunging steps - into a kind of imaginative liberation. The great ones always seem to know how to convert restriction into freedom.
The ballet is familiar here from the American Ballet Theatre production with its Cecil Beaton decor. The Joffrey version, however, staged by England's Brian Shaw, has reverted to the original set and costume designs by William Chappell.
The dancing was generally splendid. Lisa Slagle and Ellen Troy were particularly sharp as the "blue" girls, Denise Jackson and Gregory Huffman made a suave couple for the pas de deux, and Mark Goldweber, though rough in spots, dazzled in the bravura of his solo variation. Stylistically, however, the whole looked a bit too Americanized, lacking the upright look of the English manner.
Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," its elegant choreography looking almost spartan in the context of this Joffrey program, was very handsomely set forth by Denise Jackson and Kevin McKenzie. These are two patrician dancers, with a natural refinement that sustains them even through rare technical flaws - you always see the perfection of line they intended.
What can one say of Araiz' "Heptagon," a brooding, semi-abstract ballet for seven men to the same Poulenc Organ Concerto Tetley used in "Voluntaries." It's another of those physical culture ballets, with the "Master" (Christian Holder) and his Acolytes vying to outdo each other in agonized torso writhing, falls and contractions. It's not lacking in invention, but it's all piecemeal, without focus, and on its ritualistic side it just seems pretentious. Holder and the ensemble danced it magnificently, just the same.
"Suite Saint-Saens" is assembly-line Arpino - clever, splashy, exhilarating, but breathless, far too busy and ultimately vacuous. Here again, the dancing was fine.