There is no such dance term as "balleretta," which would stand in the same relation to ballet that operetta does to opera. But if there were, one could apply it unhesitatingly to Ronald Hynd's "Papillion," which the Houston Ballet brought to Wolf Trap last night for the first of three performances marking the company's area debut.
In fact, Hynd -- a former Royal Ballet dancer who's made a substantial career as a roving international choreographer -- has made something of a specialty lately of "ballerettas": besides "Papillion," he's done a "Merry Widow" for the Australian Ballet and "The Sanguine Fan" for the London Festival Ballet, both seen at Kennedy Center in past seasons, and "Rosalinda" (to the "Fledermaus" score), which he'll mount for Houston next year.
"Papillion" has both the virtues and defects of the genre, but unfortunately, it's weighted far more toward the latter than the former. It's lighthearted, fast moving, occasionally clever and not devoid of diverting passages. But it's also thin, silly, and ultimately rather pointless.
"Papillion" resurrects a ballet by the same name first given in Paris in 1860. The historical "Papillion" owed its fame to three factors -- the tragic fate of Emma Livry, the 18-year-old ballerina who played the heroine, a girl turned butterfly who scorches her wings, and then was herself fatally burned at a rehearsal two years later; Marie Taglioni, the legendary Sylph of romantic ballet, who was the choreographer; and Jacques Offenbach, who composed his only ballet music for the occasion.
All we have left of Livry is portraits and verbal description. Taglioni's choreography is long since lost -- though we have no reason to believe it was any great shakes, it would have been facinating to know how one of the 19th century's few women choregraphers made out with the project. The Offenbach score -- skillful, melodious but thoroughly unmemorable -- remains, but Hynd's production makes use of it in a camped-up arrangement by John Lanchberry that pretty will kills its vestigial attractions.
The original plot -- by Vernoy de Saint-Gerges -- was an absurd imbrogilo, but it was intended as a romantic fable in the spirit of "La Sylpide." Hynd rightly knew it wouldn't do to reproduce it straight, but what he gives us instead is failed burlesque, full of grade-school humour and bereft of any shred of honest sentiment. There are no characters to sympathize with, as there are in a succesful ballet comedy like "Coppelia," because Hynd's version gives us no characters -- only caricatured types. The choreography, a superficial simulation of romantic style with some modern "comic" touches like curled up toes, has nothing to hang onto except pretty paterns and some mild virtuostic display. Eliot Feld also created a "Papillon" with the Offenbach score, but an entirely new scenario of considerable charm -- Feld reinterpreted the tradition; Hynd has trashed it.
All this is rather a shame, because the Houston Company looks to be a fine one, as much as one can tell given this material. The dancers are clearly capable of much greater range and finesse than this paltry "Papillion" can possibly afford them. Technically, they are clean and secure, for the most part, and their dancing has spirit. There were, however, no star turns last night. As Papillion, Suzanne Longley exhibited a strong jump, a neat line and precise beats, but little of the lightness one would like to see in a butterfly-maiden. Ben Stevenson played Hamza the witch in the time honored androgynous tradition of the travesty role, but never got beyond the stereotypes. Kenneth McCombie and Dorio Perez were as lively as the pastboard roles of the Shah and the shepherd permitted.