The ballet limelight in New York for the moment is focused on two young choreographers - one of them from Washington - and two feisty, youthful ballet troupes which lend spice and diversity to a field ordinarily dominated by mammoth, star-studded enterprises.
Choo San Goh, 30, of Washington, was born in Singapore and trained in Europe. He's been the resident choreographer for the Washington Ballet since 1976, and has been largely responsible for the company's current revitalization and creative ferment. Now the Dance Theatre of Harlem is giving New York its first taste of his work.
The other choreographer is the prolific Eliot Feld, 36, who has mounted a new ballet with the troupe that bears his name, a 20-minute piece set to music by Morton Gould and intriguingly entitled "Half Time." The Feld company is in the midst of a three-week run at the Newman Theatre that's concurrent with the Dance Theatre of Harlem's engagement at Columbia University's Wollman Auditorium; both troupes are performing through Oct. 1.
It's fascinating to see Choo San Goh's choreography assayed by dancers other than those he's worked with in his adopted city. This isn't the first time his works have been done outside Washington - they've had performances in Holland, Florida, Seattle, Connecticut and elsewhere, but none so close by before.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell as a proving ground for blacks in classical ballet, has had a far more active performing history than the Washington Ballet, but it's roughly comparable in size (14 dancers, 15 apprentices) and technical level.
The Harlem troupe, however, hasn't had the benefit of the intimate contact with Goh's methods and idiosyncrasies that the Washington company has come by naturally. The outcome, in the DTH performances, is revealing not only of the strengths and weaknesses of the choreography, but also of the special demands Goh's ballets placed on dancers.
Of the two works Goh staged for the DTH, the company has a more difficult time with the abstract but romantically tinged "Variations Serieuses." To begin with, neither the solo pianist last Thursday nor the instrument at his disposal was equal to the challenge of the Mendelssohn score, which put an immediate damper on the performance.
Beyond this, the Harlem dancers, though more uniform in physique and ability than their Washington counterparts, don't look entirely comfortable with the undulant lyrical patterns of the ballet, or with its wistful mood.
There are some affecting highlights all the same, and none more memorable than the gently poetic solo by Virginia Johnson, an exquisite, lissome ballerina who incidentally received her early training with the Washington Ballet.
In "Introducing . . .," with its brisk, spiky Stravinsky music, the accent is on energy, wit, and electric shifts of stance and direction. Here the Harlem troupe, conspicuously more in tune with the choreography, contributes its own special kind of vivacity and athletic thrust, much to the advantage of the ballet.
At the same time, perhaps because the DTH training has such strong links to the New York City Ballet, the performance tends to underline Goh's vast debt to George Balanchine in this work.
"Half Time" finds Eliot Feld once again contriving to capture the look, the feel, the movement of a specific, popular milieu in dance. The teasing title suggests sports events and playing-field pageantry, as well as a certain drollery with respect to thythm, and all this is confirmed in the choreography.
The piece begins with a grid iron fanfare, and the dancers, lit and costumed in red, white and blue, make their entries in strutting formation that evokes majorettes and marching corps.
The willowy and seductive Micaela Hughes has a flirtatious cheerleader solo, and there are also facetious solos for Helen Douglas and Gregory Mitchell, as well as a trickily syncopated "Yankee Doodle Trio" for Christine Sarry, Kenneth Hughes and Jeff Satinoff, set between the opening and closing ensemble numbers.
Feld, his Broadway pedigree and eclectic upbringing very much in evidence, devises clever uses for such props as pomp-poms and twirling batons, as well as the poses and routines of varsity drills and patriotic displays. In fusing such elements with the academic vocabulary, he fabricates a dance idiom whose classical base becomes all but invisible.
One cannot help but be reminded of George Balanchine's at least conceptually similar "Stars and Stripes." But "Half Time" has a breeziness that is Feld's own, compounded of equal parts of affection for his subject and sly ridicule of it. Paradoxically, because the raw material is so clearly American, Feld's choreographic transmutation is more authentic but also more stereotyped in appearance than in his recent work dealing with Cuban and Mexican themes.
Moreover, neither the music by Goh nor Feld's own choreographic invention is as affectively sustained as in, say, "La Vida," with its superb Copland score. All the same, in "Half Time," Feld has managed to show us yet another novel and diverting side of his imagination.