If the thunderous response to Glen Tetley's "Sphinx," which was restored to the Washington repertory of American Ballet Theatre last night at the Kennedy Center, can be interpreted as a tribute to the seductive prowess of ballerina Martine van Hamel, then it was perfectly understandable. pShe has the body, the magnetism and the intensity to profit from Tetley's carnal exhibitionism, and the ballet, moreover, was made for her -- she danced the premiere here in 1977. Artist that she is, van Hamel can also make you feel there's more there than the eye sees.
The work itself, however, is something else again. True, there's a lot of heavy machinery working to lend an impression of "significance," from designer Rouben Ter-Arutunian's spectacular winged promontory, to Martinu's aggravated music, to Jennifer Tipton's portentous lighting, not to mention a weighty program note. But Tetley's choreography is imprisoned in it's own cliches. Maybe he was frightened by a cobra in childhood -- all those writhing arms and legs, coiling torsos and sinuous stretchings suggest a powerful reptilian obsession, and every Tetley opus has them.
Tetley does manage to depict sexual distress and ecstasy, but he seems incapable of telling a story clearly, and in the end, the amorphous rhythms and repetitious imagery grow mighty wearisome. "Sphinx" cries out for parody -- Mel Brooks as Oedipus, Cloris Leachman as Sphinx, and Harvey Korman as Anubis could really do a number on it. The men in last night's cast had the gymnastics down pat, but Gregory Osborne lacked the gargoylish aura that belongs to Anubis, and Ross Stretton was rather a blank Oedipus.
"La Sonnambula" drew only tepid applause, despite sensitive portrayals by Mikhail Baryshnikov as the Poet, Leslie Browne as an intriguing Coquette and Chrisa Keramidas, using her Garboesque qualities to subtle advantage as the Sleepwalker. Marianna Tcherkassky lent crisp piquancy to "Les Rendezvous," and Lise de Ribere, Cheryl Yeager and Peter Fonseca were scintillating in the pas de trois from Bournonville's "The Guards of Amager."