It has nurtured individual dancers of world class and fostered choreography of substance, but the Washington Ballet still has to prove itself as a company of fully professional caliber. Last night, at the opening of its home season in Lisner Auditorium, there was every indication this is to be the crucial year that could put this troupe on the map as an ensemble.
The bill of fare was ambitious. It began with "Les Sylphides," a ballet that begs for comparison because it is danced wherever toe shoes are worn -- but not often with total conviction. The work's finely classical technique, romantic imagery and concise modern form all provide stumbling blocks for the dancers. Washington didn't do too badly, especially the soloists.
Julie Miles, as the somber waltz dancer, seemed to take her cue from the austere ghost maidens of "Giselle" as she allowed the music to flow in her wake. Her elegance of line from head through neck into the arms was notable. The mazurka dancer was Janet Shibata, a new Washingtonian who has moved in from American Ballet Theatre. She rode the music's crest with commendable continuity.
Listening to Chopin and following like an echo, Amanda McKerrow knew her role to perfection as the prelude dancer and as the partnered sylph. The simple wonder, though, that made her performance of these passages unique last summer seems to be missing now when she is alone on stage and not dancing with Simon Dow. He gives the role of the poet, the one man among the sylphs, a muted impetuosity which finally dispenses with mannerisms.
It is the corps de ballet work that still needs strengthening. Not that the Washington Ballet's young women are embarrassed by the romanticism of "Sylphides," but they seem bothered by passages of slow pace and allow the dance impulse to wane.
Premiered on the opening night's program was Gray Veredon's "Facets." It is a complex piece of choreography, full of movement themes and dramatic motifs that take their structural cues from Benjamin Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge." Movement and drama merge in a final duet for Janet Shibata and John Goding that banishes the three other members of the cast -- Alejandra Bronfman, Julie TenEyck and McKerrow. But it was their variations that provided the ballet's startling passages.
George Balanchine's "Tchaikowsky Pas de Deux" and Choo San Goh's "Fives" completed the evening. McKerrow was delectable as a Balanchine dancer and, in this instance, without Dow in her solo passages. In these she showed a remarkable approximation of the spiky neoclassicism of the New York master. Goh's opus has become Washington Ballet's signature piece. It is being danced grandly now by all the women and at last by a fully worthy ensemble of men: Malcolm Grant, Stephen Baranovics, Brian Jameson, Joey Smith and Goding. Some of the darker intimations of encounters between the sexes have, however, been obscured.
A second performance of this program will be given on Saturday. Tomorrow night the company dances its "Golden Gala" with Mikhail Baryshnikov and other guests from American Ballet Theatre.