It was clear even from a single evening that Mikhail Baryshnikov means to continue the policy of pushing all levels of his company into the spotlight, a strategy that was one of the hallmarks of his debut as director of American Ballet Theatre last year. In last night's program at the Kennedy Center Opera House, marking the start of ABT's four-week visit with two company premieres and one Washington premiere, the major dancing assignments were apportioned to 12 different dancers of every rank, from principal to corps de ballet.
The policy paid off last year, and the signs are that it will again. The dancers are not only living up to the challenge of new-found prominence, but also performing, individually and as a troupe, with the kind of esprit born of inner confidence and buoyant morale.
All the same, the upshot of last night's program was in a different direction. Its most conspicuous feature was the uniqueness of Baryshnikov -- Baryshnikov the dancer. He is, after all, not just another member of the ensemble, but an artist of unrivaled supremacy, and no amount of egalitarian deference, no matter how admirable, can disguise that fact. He comes onto the stage, and we're in another universe, one in which ordinary yardsticks cease to apply and our heightened awareness of the electricity of dance art is but the beginning of our awe.
He made his lone appearance of the evening two-thirds of the way through the program, in the ABT premiere of Eliot Feld's "Variations on America," originally created in 1977 for Baryshnikov and ballerina Christine Sarry to music by Charles Ives and William Schuman. The performance held the quintessence of Baryshnikov's directorial reign at ABT thus far, because it combined his own personal transcendence with the growing brilliance of his partner -- the 19-year old dancer Susan Jaffe, a native Washingtonian Baryshnikov elevated to fame last year when he chose her from the corps as a zero-hour substitute for Gelsey Kirkland. Now here she was, dancing alongside her "boss" and, almost incredibly, matching him in authority, projection and technical ease. Her performance had all the freshness of a first time out, but also the zing and unaffected glamor that normally take years of seasoning.
As for Baryshnikov, he was at his unbuttoned best, in a vehicle that mixes offhand burlesque with blazing pyrotechnics. "Variations" works with the same material Feld later treated at greater length but in a similar vein in his "Half-Time," a cartoonish, half-parodistic, half-affectionate montage of the cliche's of American patriotism. Willa Kim's costumes, with their flag motifs, suggest parades, drum majoring and cheerleading, themes Feld redoubles in his choreography. Baryshnikov catapults in at the start with a dazzling double air spin, and from then on the action alternates between satirical horseplay and athletic virtuosity, with Jaffe's saucy strutting as a counter to Baryshnikov's dandy Yankee Doodle. And every time he took to the air one wondered where the atomic propellant came from.
Jaffe again, even more surprisingly, provided the most impressive dancing in the ABT premiere of Balanchine's "Bouree Fantasque," a large ensemble piece dating from 1949. The work, clever and scintillating in Balanchine's most "public" manner, is, by reputation, a barn-burning finale for an evening. But though Martine van Hamel and Danilo Radojevic were amusing in the tall-short hijinks of the opening movement, and Kristine Elliott and Charles Maple were aptly zestful in the last, it was Jaffe's lyric warmth (abetted by partner Ross Stretton) in the questing romanticism of the middle movement that left the deepest trace.
Cynthia Harvey and Christine Spizzo were sprightly and lucid in the lush geometry of Petipa's "Jardin Anime" scene from "Le Corsaire," which had its Washington premiere last night in the ABT staging by Diana Joffe, and which proved an engaging addition to the repertory. Kenneth MacMillan's "Concerto," though, despite an able cast led by Cynthia Gregory, looked as synthetic as ever in its mechanical ebullience.
A particularly happy footnote to last night's opener: the new Opera House dance floor was a smashing success in its debut. Baryshnikov said, "It makes a huge difference," and reports from backstage were ecstatic.