Perhaps the last thing in the world one might think of in connection with Akron, Ohio, would be classical ballet. It just goes to show how off the mark one can be if one forgets about the incredible cultural dispersion that's taken place in this country over the past decade.
The fact is that ballet is flourishing in Akron, and on a rather amazingly high level, especially given the city's relative isolation from major dance centers. Proof of the pudding was the area debut last night of the Akron-based Ohio Ballet at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theater. The troupe's 20 dancers are clearly professional, exceptionally attractive and remarkably well-trained. If the eternally vexing problem of adequate repertoire prevents the company's impact from matching its appeal, the mere existence of such a troupe in such a place is nevertheless an attainment not to be lightly regarded.
The Ohio Ballet was founded in 1968 by Heinz Poll, and since going fully professional under his leadership in 1974, it has danced in New York and California and points between, including such prestigious festivals as those of Jacob's Pillow and Spoleto (both in the U.S. and Italy). Poll has dedicated the troupe to the concept of "chamber ballet," sticking of mostly home-grown ballets of moderate scope, performed to live music. And he has sworn never to produce a "Nutcracker." For this refreshing resolution alone he deserves a hallowed niche in ballet annals.
The company does have some ballets by such notables as Joffrey, Sokolow, Posin and Arpino, as well as Balanchine ("Concerto Barocco") and Paul Taylor ("Aureole"). Performances of the latter two works during Monday night's lecture-demonstration ("Barocco" will also be seen on tonight's program) clearly displayed the company's most conspicuous assets -- the skill, refinement and disciplined ensemble of its dancers.
The one hitch -- and it's not a small one -- is that most of the troupe's vehicles are the work of Poll himself. Last night's program consisted of four of his ballets, to music by Bach, Schubert and Chopin -- the drift is clear -- and reflecting variously the idioms of Balanchine, Eliot Feld, John Cranko and others. Poll's choreography isn't incompetent -- he knows how to stitch classical steps together in a reasonably sensible manner, and he borrows shrewdly from masters. He's also judicious in designing material that fits his dancers without straining them unduly.
But it's finally little more than workbook choreography, without strongly registered shape or impulse, at once busy and plodding, and relieved all too rarely by flashes of poetry or imagination. True, this is preferable to half-baked classical potboilers or trendy showpieces. At the same time, however, this isn't the kind of choreography to bring artistic maturity to dancers as gifted as these.