The Washington Ballet, having successfully undergone the fiery baptism of its first New York City engagement in the interval since its last home appearances, returned to Lisner Auditorium this past weekend with the first of three programs in its annual Spring Series. The offerings were shrewdly balanced between new work -- an American and a Washington premiere by journeymen choregraphers Choo San Goh's poignant "Synonyms"; and that hardy perennial, Balanchine's "Serenade." And the company, on the whole, was looking as fresh, fit and exuberant as in its best past seasons.
There was also a bit more of that professional gloss -- not so much a matter of technique as of self-assurance and the projection, the awareness of the theater as distinct from a studio -- that has largely eluded the troupe in the past and toward which further strides still need to be taken.
The new works, despite signs of strudy craftsmanship and pictorial imagination, both suffer from choreographic anemia. Michael Kessler's "Clownshots" opens with a man (Kessler himself Friday night) standing atilt in a Marceau pose and outfit -- whiteface, striped polo shirt, white tights. The piece proceeds, accompanied by a series of Satie cafe ballads and piano vignettes, to a series of skits involving a Clown (the man), various female clown personifications (The Girl Clown, the Mother Clown, the Socialist Clown and serveral others, all portrayed by two dancers), and an Evil Queen. c
But the skits, which use basic ballet plus various gestural features of mime, have no comprehensible connection, and the "characters" are barely distinquishable through minor costume changes (the Socialist Clown, whatever that might be, eluded identification altogether). And aside from a certain fey saccharinity, nothing much else gets conveyed.
The American premiere, Lambros Lambou's "Summer Interlude," like the "Othello" he staged earlier for the company, is a narrative ballet, and it fails in a similar way. Like "Othello," the new work achieves a detailed and extended dramatic structure, but it's all structure and no drama. The look of the ballet, with its park setting and Edwardian dress, and even the plot -- a married couple encountering the wife's first lover -- evoke Ashton, but only in externals.
It isn't until the fourth movement of the score (a Hummel quintet) that the romantic triangle erupts into conflict, and when it does, the emotional temperature never rises above lukewarm. In the meanwhile, the choreography draws not nearly enough distinction between either the main or subsidiary characters, who appear to be just dancing props. Lambrou has the means down pat of telling a story clearly in ballet, but telling a story and bringing it to dramatic life are two different things.
Goh's "Synonoyms" has dramatic life without a story, attained through choreography of striking visual eloquence, and fugitive but powerful suggestions of dramatic tension; his capacity for such fusions is one of Goh's main gifts as a choreographer. The performance, with Hilary Canary and Julie Miles as the lead pair, didn't quite match the work -- it was as if Goh's anatomical idiom and expressive concept were just beyond the reach of the dancers, who can use this kind of stretching.
The performance of "Serenade," on the other hand -- reportedly rehearsed by Goh -- was exceptionally fine, exact in its classical profile and affectingly lyrical without a shred of exaggeration or mannerism.