If the Joffrey Ballet's opening program at Wolf Trap Monday evening seemed on the undernourished side, the company made up for it last night with a choreographic repast of high caloric content, served up with a flair befitting a banquet. The program, which included a pair of diametrically contrasted contemporary pieces, a charming "period" restoration and an early, minor masterwork by Frederick Ashton, was not only richer in substance but far more becoming to the dancers, as it turned out.
The evening led off with "Helena," a work commissioned from Washington's own Choo San Goh and premiered last November in New York. It strikes me as the least ingratiating of Goh's ballets, reworking the battle-of-the-sexes motif that runs through some earlier pieces but without much in the way of fresh inspiration, and lacking the clarity and coherence of "Momentum," a Goh opus that preceded "Helena" in the Joffrey repertoire. The music for "Helena" is a turn-off from the start -- the gnashing turbulence of Ginastera's Piano Concerto No. 1 strikes one as formless and derivative posturing. And the dramatic implications of the choreography resist unraveling -- all those preenings, stalkings and unresolved confrontations, both for the lead couple and the ensemble, remain as enigmatic as the ballet's title.
Here and there are creative flashes worthy of Goh's talents, such as the spluttering burst of lifts that closes the first movement, the oddly defensive male solo in the second, and the revelation of the final tower image. The performance, moreover, was sterling -- Denise Jackson was perhaps not ideally cast as the impetuous female lead, but Philip Jerry was aptly volatile as her partner and the others danced with cutting intensity.
From there on the evening went straight up. The other contemporary piece, Laura Dean's "Night," is not only a daring venture into modern dance terrain for the Joffrey, but a brilliant effort by the choreographer to assimilate classic materials -- such as toe shoes and academic steps -- into the texture of her indelibly personal, "minimalist" idiom. The neo-Samurai costumes in midnight hues, the repetitive throb of Dean's own mesmeric two-piano score, and the incessant spinning, swaying, twisting, darting and orbiting of the dancers all add up to something indefinably but unmistakably, hauntingly nocturnal. If anything, the work's 20 minutes seem too short; just when you're ready to submit to the spell indefinitely, it's over.
The sensitivity to style, era and character that so eluded the troupe in the opening night's "Cakewalk" was amazingly reborn in the performances of Ashton's "Wedding Bouquet" and Arthur Saint-Leon's "La Vivandiere Pas de Six." The latter is a beguiling slice of mid-19th-century Parisian ballet, devised by the creator of "Coppelia" to ebullient opera music by Auber, and lovingly restored from old notational records through the joint efforts of Ivor Guest and Ann Hutchinson. We know the airy, buoyant delicacy of the style from the works of August Bournonville, who transmitted it to his native Denmark; the "Vivandiere" number has the same lucidity and capering euphoria. Among the many felicities of the performance one might cite particularly Ann Marie de Angelo's diagonal succession of whizzing gargouillades -- tricky jump steps with trilling feet.
The company did itself no less proud in "Wedding Bouquet," a dotty farce from 1937, set in turn-of-the-century rustic France but wholly English in manner, with its engaging Lord Berners score and narrated (by David Vaughan) text from Gertrude Stein. Who else but Ashton could ever have confected a ballet about a nutty, lovelorn damsel, her rambunctious dog, her preposterously roguish ex-suitor and a gallery of bickering, flirting, tippling guests, and turned the whole thing into an affectionate group portrait. The success of the Joffrey's accounting of this charmer speaks worlds for its dedication to the glories of the dance heritage.