Spending a weekend with the Berlin Ballet, one comes to suspect that the company has a goal but, also, that the path toward it is far from straight. There is a lack of firm direction that is not at all a matter of rehearsal time. In fact, repeat performances at the Kennedy Center of Valery Panov's "The Idiot" and the mixed bill of shorter works looked thoroughly drilled. What was missing, especially in the one-acters, was a company style.
Would, for instance, Hans van Manen's "5 Tangos" have seemed less perverse in stifling the dance impulse of the tango if the two performers of the male pas de deux had possessed similar schooling? Igor Kosak showed the easy, flowing line of Russian training, while Oscar Elizondo was not just less proficient but had a sharper, less pliant manner.
Such discrepancies are hardly surprising since only three of the 21 top dancers are German, and the others seem to hail from all over the world. Berlin hasn't been a leading ballet town since 1883, when Paul Taglioni retired as ballet master and choreographer of the then Royal Opera.
Berlin, though, did continue to have its balletomanes and even some unique traditions. One of the local characteristics was an enthusiasm for Russian dancers. After the Russian Revolution, the city became second only to Paris as refuge for czarist dance teachers. They saw to it that Germany's burgeoning modern dance did not lose all contact with classical training.
Gert Reinholm, current director of the Berlin Ballet, comes from such a hybrid tradition. He was a leading dancer for Tatiana Gsovsky, a Berlin Russian choreographer who used academic ballet in an expressioist way. Her troupe toured here in the 1950s, and she upset some people with her acrobatic distortions of the classical dance vocabulary, but the works and the performers had a style. The only aspect of it that shows in Reinholm's company is a penchant for dramatic repertory.
Would a strong director have permitted Eva Evdokimova to be so palid in the title role of John Cranko's "Firebird?" That she can be totally convincing was proven in Birgit Culberg's "Miss Julie." Evdokimova showed the young aristocrat to be both victim and victimizer, and made her a fine foil for Roudolf Nureyev's wonderfully insinuating portrayal of the butler.
All in all, Saturday night's performance of the mixed bill was the best so far. Heidrum Schwaarz used the Firebird's flutter and awkward steps (knee bends on point, in the wide stance of second position) for characterization thus alleviating some of the dullness of this version of the balletic fairy tale. Dianne Bell, who dances with more noticeable articulation than Schwaarz, was a better partner for Nureyev in "5 Tangos," and he looked less anonymous in it than on Friday. The "Don Q," too, had moe sparkle and less brute force, owing to Galina Panova's dancing. Her turns, balances and perfecty stretched legs are always remarkable, but this time her neck and shoulders were at ease, giving her a lighter image in motion and pose.
Reda Sheta danced Nureyev's roles on Saturday afternoon. He looked imposing in the tango ballet, but his body and limbs were seldom fully extended, and he never seemed to point his feet. In "Miss Julie" he resorted to stock acting in places where Nureyev's mere look and suggested the whole history of an experience. Therefore, his Rogozhin in Sunday afternoon's "Idiot" was a welcome surprise. The intensity and evil never became ludicrous or merely bizarre. With Bell as a gentle Aglaja, Schwaarz, a tempestuous Nastasya, Kosak as perhaps too dashing a Ganya and Vladimir Gelvan in an incredibly charming rendering of the divine fool, the afternoon cast made every expression or step contribute to the mounting tension of this most economical ballet. With walking, running, gesturing, cowering and only incidental shorthand dancing, "The Idiot" suggests the world of its literary source far more successfully than Cranko's "Eugene Onegin," MacMillan's "Manon," and the other 19th-century costume ballets. What Panov's ballet adds to Dostoyevsky is a depiction of the tensions between the protagonists' bodies and their minds.