Whatever shadows may have been cast over American Ballet Theatre by the company's last-minute dismissal of principal dancers Gelsey Kirkland and Patrick Bissell Tuesday, none was in sight last night as the troupe began a four-week run at the Kennedy Center Opera House. With numbers of fresh new faces dotting the ranks, the dancers generally looked trim, vibrant and fit. A palpable aura of excitement broadcast itself as the troupe took to the stage for the first time anywhere since Mikhail Baryshnikov's inauguration as artistic director.
This is not to say that the absence of Kirkland and Bissell isn't cause for melancholy. There are no "substitutes" for the miraculous Kirkland, and Bissell was just coming into his own as one of the company's stalwarts. The severance is sad for the two dancers, for the company, for the ballet audience; one can only hope a truce can be devised. In the meantime, ABT once again proved itself larger than individuals and their traumas. The show did go on, and it was, by and large, a splendid show at that.
The program had an exceptionally generous share of special attractions, among them newly acquired ballets by two of the century's master choreographers -- Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine; a storybook debut for 18-year-old Susan Jaffe, dancing opposite Alexander Godunov in the role in "Pas d'Esclave" which was to have been Kirkland's; and, in the revival of Twyla Tharp's popular ballet jest, "Push Comes to Shove," the reappearance of Baryshnikov himself as an ABT dancer.
Yet, for all the things the evening had in its favor, nothing on the program had the impact one looked for -- everything was almost-but-not-quite what it might have been.
Ashton's "Les Rendezvous" is "historic": one of his earliest (1933) surviving pieces, and the start of a line of neo-classic abstractions that ran through "Les Patineurs" and "Symphonic Variations." It's charming, effervescent and prodigiously inventive, but it lacks the formal perfection and economy of its sequels, and still shows signs of the frequent tinkering it has undergone. It is, nevertheless, unmistakably Ashton, and that means beguilingly musical and inventive, among other things. A lead couple, a trio and a quartet of soloists head an ensemble of 10 couples "strolling" through a park (outlined by William Chappell's airy grillwork set), and in a succession of mostly brisk, genteel, modestly ornate dance numbers. Marianna Tcherkassky (replacing Kirkland) and Danilo Radojevic (looking more sharply virtuosic than ever) were the comely lead couple; Rebecca Wright, Warren Conover and Peter Fonseca danced spryly in the pas de trois.
Balanchine's equally historic but wholly masterful "Prodigal Son" had the benefit of a strong, convincing debut in the role of the prodigal by young Robert La Fosse, whose rebellious petulance seemed entirely his own but an altogether viable interpretation. The trouble was that Cynthia Gregory, who one would have thought ideally cast as the Siren, seemed curiously wooden this first time out -- she probably needs to feel her way further into the role, for which she has all the technical, physical and temperamental attributes.
One could see why Susan Jaffe was awarded the "Pas d'Esclave" opportunity -- she's a strikingly attractive dancer, tallish, extremely supple, with beautifully arched feet, a sensuous line and extravagant extension. But this curiosity of a pas de deux, staged by Baryshnikov and Diana Joffe from their Kirov Ballet memories, isn't very revealing artistically -- there's little to it beyond conventional 19th century virtuoso flourish. Godunov, looking oddly dour, danced with apt bravura, but the partnership looked more like a matter of convenience than rapport.
Baryshnikov drew a big blast of applause on his entrance in "Push Comes to Shove," as well he might; if the pyrotechnics of the part seemed subdued in relation to past performances, they still had a galvanic precision he alone is capable of giving, and his clowning was as winning as ever. The ballet, however, for all its frantic ingenuity, continues to look like an excessively ramshackle, single-joke composition.