Where else in today's world but on the ballet stage would China, Russia and the United States join hands -- and feet -- in a jointly creative and mutually beneficial enterprise?
The principal actors in this thoroughly cordial entente were choreographer Choo San Goh, assistant artistic director of the Washington Ballet, born in Singapore to Chinese parents, largely trained in the West; Mikhail Baryshnikov, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, born and schooled in the Soviet Union, and after his defection to this country, swiftly acknowledged as the foremost male dancer of our time; and finally, the Washington Ballet itself under founder-director Mary Day, a troupe which, despite its international flavorings, is clearly as American as root beer.
And the object of their reciprocal endeavors? "Configurations," the new ballet by Goh, commissioned by Baryshnikov and performed by him and a guest ensemble from ABT Friday night at Lisner Auditorium as the chief offering in the Washington Ballet's "Golden Gala." Adding to the evening's glow, were former Day prote'ge's Shirley MacLaine, as mistress of ceremonies, and ABT ballerina Marianna Tcherkassky, as Baryshnikov's partner; Moscow prize winners Amanda McKerrow and Simon Dow, appearing with their home company; and the world premiere of "Echoes," created for the Washington Ballet by former ABT principal John Meehan.
If all these trappings led inevitably to extravagant expectations, it is understandable that the event proved less than earth-shattering, for all its genuine achievements. The circumstances were extraordinary from many standpoints -- dancers of ABT caliber appearing in close proximity to those from a modest regional troupe; Baryshnikov dancing with a recently aggravated foot injury; a last-minute substitution of Simon Dow for scheduled ABT guest Kevin McKenzie, disabled by illness; and an air of hyperexcitation that few dance experiences are destined to live up to.
Given all this, it's rather amazing that "Configurations" turned out as well as it did, especially in light of the additional fact that it is Goh's first composition for a company of ABT's magnitude. It is a strong, handsome, riveting ballet in a mold not unlike many of Goh's finest previous works, yet it's not the kind of piece that sweeps you away in a single viewing, as, for example, the same choreographer's "Fives" (seen later on this same program) is apt to do. Its shapes and moods are vivid, but at the same time, the choreography is complex, subtle and recessed enough to suggest that fuller acquaintance is needed to divine all its secrets.
In the recent past, Goh had been experimenting with modes of dance new to him -- narrative ballet, romantic atmosphere, music by composers like Strauss, Rachmaninoff and Verdi. In "Configurations" he returns largely to the dynamic abstractions of his earlier work (like "Fives"), using the basic classical vocabulary of movement with personal nuances in the form of torso, head and arm gestures, and letting the music be the determinant of choreographic impulse and structure. Still, there are signs in "Configurations" of acquisitions from his experiments -- a new emotional intensity, a substrate of poetic implication. "Configurations," which has Samuel Barber's "modernistic" but decidedly romantically hued Piano Concerto as its score, is abstract, to be sure. But it also defines tensions, attractions and currents between its dancers that evoke specific transactions of feeling. The odd thing about the ballet is the contrast between its cool, spare decor and costumes, which range in color from blue to mauve to frosty silver -- the colors of night and ice -- and the underlying warmth of the music and choreography.
Baryshnikov, understandably, is given the lion's share of the soloistic dancing. Once the curtain lifts, on a backdrop that might be an abstraction of mountains and lakes, he starts the ballet, bolting in with a burst of leaps across the stage and ending in a bent pose of arrested fury. The ensuing solo passage is full of sharply angled arm jerks and sudden jabs of the knee -- it's like the spilling forth of pent-up passion, a passion bordering on anger. Fluid sequences for three demi-soloist couples intervene before Tcherkassky makes her entrance in a darting, restless solo. Toward the middle of the concerto's first movement, Baryshnikov has an even more extended and emotionally equivocal soliloquy. It isn't until the second movement that he and Tcherkassky dance together, in a lyrical, rather melancholy duet with plainly amorous overtones. In the bristling finale, there's more interaction, but the two are apart more than together, and the abrupt closing tableau finds them distinctly separated.
The choreography fits Baryshnikov very becomingly, and he danced it with a mixture of troubled introspection and blistering urgency. But though it suits him well, it doesn't appear at first sight to stretch him esthetically, to challenge his interpretive powers, aside from acclimating his dancing to the individual traits of Goh's style. It is possible, however, that further exposure will reveal levels of the ballet that are not initially apparent -- perhaps the best thing about the work is its hints of mysterious depths.
Tcherkassky and the entire ABT ensemble danced with the distinction one would expect. It's not possible here to do justice to the rest of the packed program. Meehan's prettily nostalgic "Echoes," a gloss on "Les Sylphides," is generally well crafted. McKerrow and Dow were sweetly appealing in Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," and Goh's "Fives" was as much of a knockout as usual. Best of all, perhaps, is that with its complement of new dancers, the Washington Ballet is looking better than ever.