THE WASHINGTON Ballet and dancer-choreographer Jan Van Dyke represent quite separate domains of artistic activity but they have at least two important things in common besides their city of residence -- both are pillars of the Washington dance scene, and both find themselves presently at crossroads. The paths they take, and how they transverse them, are certain to have signal impact on the future development of artistic life here and, very likely, elsewhere.
The Washington Ballet, looking back over four years of rapid growth -- catalyzed in large part by the arrival in 1976 of resident choreographer Choo San Goh (now also the troupe's assistant artistic director) -- will present the last of this season's programs at Lisner Auditorium Friday and Saturday, featuring the premier of Goh's latest ballet, "Lament," set to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." In impending months, the company will ready itself for a debut at the prestigious Jacob's Pillow summer festival in July, and then its New York City area debut at Brooklyn College at the start of November. The troupe will already be on annual leave when Washington's own City Dance festival commences in May, but Choo San Goh has been commissioned to create a pas de deux for the event, to be danced by company principals Lynn Cote and John Goding. The burning question for the future is: Can and will the company take the ambitious "leap forward" that its dancers and directors now envision for themselves?
Jan Van Dyke also loks back on a record of exceptional striving and creative achievement, especially since 1973, when she founded both her own troupe and the center for modern dance study and performance known as the Dance Project. This coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Jan Van Dyke and Dancers will present at the Dance Project the premiere of Van Dyke's latest opus, a 30-minute work for eight dancers provisionally entitled "Circling." At City Dance, the company will repeat Van Dyke's recent popular success, "Stamping Dance," as well as her much admired solo, "Waltz." Next December, the troupe will reassemble for performances at the Washington Project for the Arts. But well before then, in early fall, Van Dyke will depart (as she has twice in her past) for New York for an indefinite period, to gain new perspective and recharge her creative batteries. The company and the Dance Project will have been closed down, along with the classes, workshops and concert series it sponsored. Kei Takei, Elizabeth Keen, Hannah Kahn and June Finch were a few of the many visiting arists brought oo town under DP auspices over the past three years, during which many Washington artists also received exposure in its cozy 18th Street theater. The questions Van Dyke will leave in her wake include: What new artistic direction will her own creative work take under the stimuli she'll receive from her New York venture; and what effect will her departure have on the Washington dance community she so vitally enhanced as an impresario, teacher, dancer, choreographer and oracle?
With the demise of the National Ballet in 1974, and the much more recent collapse of the Arlington Dance Theatre -- along with the present, hopefully temporary suspension of both the Capitol Ballet and Baltimore's Maryland Ballet (all rather alarming signs of the effect of inflationary economics on the arts) -- the Washington Ballet has the field of classically-based, contemporary ballet pretty much to itself hereabouts. And, in a sense, its golden moment of opportunity its now. The exciting choreographic innovations of Choo San Goh have propelled the company toward a new level of vitality and cohesion. In the past, a major danger for the troupe was the flight of its best dancers to larger, more lucrative and better-publicized outfits. That danger remains, but to it has been added a greater one -- the prospect of losing Goh to a major company in another city. To forestall that possiblity, the Washington Ballet will have to strengthen its complement of dancers, and expand both its season and its repertoire, and to accomplish such things, it will also have to find sizable new chunks of cash.
The chance that Goh may be snared by "the outside world" is not merely speculative. Since 1976 he has created 14 ballets, most for the Washington Ballet but also for other companies fro New York to Seattle. All have been original, interesting and well-crafted, and at least three ("Fives," "Double Contrasts" and "Birds of Paradise") would be assets for any ballet repertory anywhere, a fact not lost on the choreography-starved ballet circuit. rStill to come from him this year will be new ballets for City Dance, the Boston Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet. People magazine will soon run an article on him; Dance magazine is planning a profile for this summer; and Washington's Channel 9 is preparing a half-hour prime-time special on the Washington Ballet, pegged to Goh's work, to air in May. As recently as last November, Mikhail Baryshnikov reconfirmed his interest in working with him. Goh has already rejected one job offer from a large western city, and he has actually had to turn down his first choreographic commission from American Ballet Theatre because of heavy prior commitments. It doesn't take a sibyl to see what might lie ahead.
No one at the Washington Ballet sees its "leap forward" as leading to a resurrection of a National Ballet-type operation -- a massive classical repertory company trying to compete with ABT. What they aspire to is a strong cadre of 20 to 25 fully professional dancers, with an expanded season at home and on tour that could serve as a conspicuous showcase for the continuing outpourings of Goh, as well as the work of other promising choreographers. At present, the company has 16 dancers, a Washington season consisting of four programs (each given three performances), the annual run of "Nutcracker" and an annual budget of about $750,000, of which only 11 percent comes in the form of contributions by individuals, corportations and foundations (box-office from "Nutcracker" and school revenues make up the rest). To reach their presently projected goals would require adding another $250,000 to the budget over the next three years and greatly increasing the percentage raised through non-box- office sources. It is toward these targets that the company is now aiming its efforts. Visible steps have already been taken -- a strengthening of the board under its new chairman, Aldus Chapin; a tightening of administration under managing director Alton Miller; expanded touring; New York auditions for dancers conducted by Goh and Washington Ballet founder-director Mary Day; application for an Arts Endowment challenge grant; and, next year, a doubling of the number of weekends for the Lisner performances.
Miller says: "There's a fine line between extension and overextension, and that's where we're trying to balance ourselves." Mary Day observes that "we've hit the jackpot with Choo San, and one sign of it is how many more dancers from our school these days want to stay here in Washington rather than leave." And for Goh himself:
"Yes, I feel very committed to Washington, there's so much of me in the company by now, and the company in me. I want to see the company grow, but I also feel it's got to happen pretty soon, for the sake of my own development. On the other hand, I think if it continues to progress as it has in the last few years, we're going to make it."
About her own "leap forward" -- into the unknown -- Jan Van Dyke has this to say:
"I feel very mixed about going, naturally. I love Washington, it's my home and it's really nurtured me. I'd never sever all my connections with it, anyway -- I'm just giving myself two years up there, I tell myself. But right now I feel the need to get back to the center, to be part of a dance community -- though there are the beginnings of one here, I still feel rather isolated. Besides, it seems very hard to come by national attention here, as yet -- one is always regarded as 'regional' somehow. So I'll teach and perform and choreograph, I'm not sure where or how. I feel I've fulfilled the goals I set myself five years ago, and I need a change from trying to be an administrator and an artist at the same time -- they're so different in feeling, you want to be childlike and open for one, tough and business-like for the other. If I had stayed in Washington, or if I return, it would be in a different capacity. But I try to look at it not as my leaving something, but as my going to something else, something new."
What happens to the Washington Ballet and Jan Van Dyke is crucial for all of us because they have been and will continue to be bellwethers of the city's culture. In their respective spheres they stand for the finest that indigenous creative endeavor has produced, and upon their continued flourishing will hang the fortunes of Washington dance.