The latest addition to the rapidly growing list of ballet creations by Washington's Choo San Goh is "Celestial Images," a large, fascinating, complex opus given its world premiere at the Shubert Theatre here on Thursday evening by the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Set to Bela Bartok's gripping "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," the 32-minute work calls for a cast of two lead couples with 10 other dancers, and is one of Goh's most scenically elaborate works to date.
A sense of mystery and elusive flux pervades the ballet, as suggested by the title and reinforced by analogous qualities in the music. Although not always clear in intent and rather uneven in impact, it was received with thunderous enthusiasm by the opening night audience, an dits seems certain to advance Goh's already imposing reputation.
As has so often been the case with Goh's work, "Celestial Images" is at once abstract and filled with suggestively concrete reference. The "celestial" imagery is apparent enough, yet never without tantalizing shades of ambiguity. In the beginning, for example, the two lead women (Michelle Lucci and Magali Messac) slink out in Vitali and William DeGregory) like a pair of double stars emerging suddenly into separate visibility, an effect enhanced by the nocturnal murk of Lowell Detweiler's gauzy draperies and Tony Tucci's flintly lightning. Yet the ballerinas might as easily be two Eves materializing from their respective Adams, or a couple of satellites swinging into view alongside their governing stars.
Other formations and individual movements in the course of the work evoke a variety of cosmic sights and occurrences -- twinklings, spokes of radiant fire, slowly streaming vapors, globular clusterings. Yet the ballet is coherent in purely kinetic and musical terms.
"Celestial Images," in fact, demonstrates anew Goh's resourcefulness as an architect of dance. Not only does the price have clearly defined beginnings, middles and ends, but each section is masterfully shaped to serve its function within the whole. On the other hand, in stylistic terms "Celestial Images" is not the kind of breakthrough that, say, the recent "Birds of Paradise" represented in Goh's development. Many of its motifs are taken or adapted from earlier work, and there is little feeling her of choreographic novelty. Where one perceives progress is in structural control -- "Celestial Images" is distinctly less cluttered and relentless than some of Goh's previous major work, and in its two middle movements it blossoms into extended, showy and effective solos for its principals.
Allowing for the inevitable shakiness of opening nights, the performance seemed admirably strong and spirited, though it must be said that the technically far steadier Pennsylvanians haven't got the sensitivity go Goh's anatomical idiom that his home company, the Washington Ballet, usually shows.
The live musical performance by the Pennsylvania Orchestra under the baton of Maurice Kaplow was a mixed blessing -- it's gratifying to have the vitality and texture of live sound, but the Bartok score needs a far sharper, more preceptive rendering than it got Thursday night.