Is the Washington Ballet going to make it into the Big Time and attract serious national attention, or will it, instead, gradually slip back into a quiet, provincial groove?
This now burning question has been simmering in the company's background ever since the troupe went professional in 1976 and at the same time acquired the services of choreographer Choo San Goh, a gifted young man from Singapore with whose artistic fortunes the destiny of the Washington Ballet has been closely intertwined over the past half decade. The hour for answers, however, seems almost upon us, and the season which opened with company performances at Lisner Auditorium this weekend may well be decisive.
It's a season that will be highlighted by the premieres of no fewer than four ballets to be created expressly for the company, not only by Goh, but also such newcomers to the Washington scene as Lambros Lambrou, Pierre Wyss and possibly others who will advance the troupe's important role as a herald of emerging talent. Also on view will be a retrospective survey of many of Goh's most impressive ballets to date. The exposure for these works, moreover, as well as for the dancers, as been significantly magnified over the past -- this season, the company will present each of the four programs in its Lisner series over two weekends instead of one.
More importantly, the coming ballet year will se a number of break-through occurrences -- each with its attendant risks -- both for the company itself and Goh personally. The Washington Ballet will be making its New York area debut on Nov. 1 and 2 at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, in programs featuring works by Goh and Lambrou. Not only will this put the company on the line before the highly influential New York dance press, but it will do so in the content of a parade of ballet troupes from across the country -- both Brooklyn Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music are inaugurating series featuring "regional" American ballet.
Goh also has events and acttivities of special moment coming up. Mikhail Baryshnikov, newly installed as director of American Ballet Theatre, recently stated that Goh would definitely be one of the choreographers ABT would be looking to in coming seasons for new material. On Nov. 6 the Joffrey Ballet will give the premiere of Goh's newest ballet, "Helena," the first commission he has received from one of the country's three ranking classical ballet troupes. Shortly thereafter he'll be traveling to Australia and then Paris apropos of tentatively scheduled mountings of his works. Under discussion with an important domestic troupe is a full-length dramatic ballet for a couple of seasons hence.
Meanwhile, both Goh and the Washington Ballet's founder-director Mary Day, as well others who help nurture the troupe, are aware of the need for new approaches that growth brings, and they have been devising plans accordingly. The company is awaiting word this month on its application for a sizable challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Strategies are in effect to increase corporate support from last year's $5,000 to $20,000. The overall annual budget will rise from $750,000 to $925,000; in general, fund-raising efforts have been heavily beefed up.
Changes in company ranks have been smaller and less consequential -- a few new dancers, a few old ones lost, some promotions. The technical staff has been considerably strengthened, however, and there's also been discussion about forming a second, junior company that could serve as a performing outlet for the associated School of the Washington Ballet.
With progress comes problems, and both Goh and the company face more demanding ones ahead than any they've had to contend with in the past. In the next year or so Goh will have to address such questions as whether he may be overextending himself; whether he can proceed beyond his past work in composing sustained lyrical passenges; whether he can steer clear of the cluttered hyperactivity that has marred some of his choreography; whether he can achieve a large, clear dramatic structure; whether he can avoid making some of his characteristic imagery seem less like trademarks than personal cliches -- in short, confronting the question of how far he can expand his own artistic horizons in the face of a broader public and critical scruutiny.
The major challenges to the company are twofold -- the need for superior dancers and for a greatly extended schedule. With Goh's ballets leading the way, repertoire remains the company's main strength and attraction. lBut the level of dancing hasn't kept pace. The dancers have much improved, and their spirited rapport continues to be an asset. But it's going to take an infusion of fresh talent to provide the leap to the kind of technical and expressive mettle that will be imperative if the troupe is to retain Goh, and attract sufficient audience and patronage for the future. One problem has been the inevitable flight of promising young dancers to the larger companies. Another has been that up to now the company has lacked the resources to offer truly competitive salaries, as well as a season full enough to appeal to seasoned artists.
It might help to appoint a strong artistic administrator, whose primary function would be to guide the troupe towards these pressing goals.Mary Day's first concern has always been her school, as well it might ge given her remarkable pedagogic track record. Goh's principal efforts must necessarily be devoted to creating and rehearsing ballets. Someone like Ivan Nagy pops to mind as the kind of person who might build and steer a company effectively -- someone, in any case, with rigorous standards, a keen eye, a sure administrative hand, important connections in the dance world, a Washington following, and no choreographic ambitions of his (or her) own.
Whatever is to be done, it will have to be done soon. The potential of the Washington Ballet seems vast. But the tides of history won't be slowed, and the opportunities presently on the horizon may never come again.