When Choo San Goh's new ballet, "Configurations," was seen here in a preview for the Washington Ballet's "Golden Gala" a couple of months ago, the work looked as if it might deepen its impression with further viewings. That's exactly what happened last night when American Ballet Theatre presented it at the Kennedy Center Opera House with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Marianna Tcherkassky again heading the identical cast.
The ABT program last night mirrored the three main divisions of the company's repertoire, and hence its basic artistic orientation. Besides "Configurations," which, as a work commissioned by Baryshnikov, exemplified the search for new choreographic talent, there was an early-20th-century, epoch-making classic -- Fokine's "Les Sylphides" -- and a masterpiece of innovative Americana -- Eugene Loring's "Billy the Kid" -- both from the rich legacy of ABT's past. But it was "Configurations" that gave the evening its most profound impact, partly because of the unfailingly gripping presence of Baryshnikov, but also because of the way in which the ballet itself disclosed new levels of meaning and urgency.
A number of factors contributed to the gain. Unlike the Lisner Auditorium preview, where the music -- Samuel Barber's gnarled, neo-romantic Piano Concerto -- was recorded, here the splendid performance by pianist David Arden and the orchestra under Alan Barker was very much alive. And in the meantime, the cast has given several performances elsewhere and benefited not only from a more dramatically accented lighting scheme, but also its own more sensitive grasp of the choreography. Baryshnikov himself, who was remarkable enough in the preview, danced with even more riveting intensity and concentration as the troubled, introspective protagonist, and Tcherkassky seems also to have made a more intimate connection with the work's spirit. And the rest of the ensemble, consisting of three supporting couples and a corps of six men, has followed suit.
This second chance to see the work in Washington also helped one to unravel some of the choreographic complexities, and at the same time it confirmed the subtlety and strength of Goh's craftsmanship. Goh's underlying vocabulary remains firmly classical, but the "body language" that gives his choreography its distinctive visual and dramatic imprint has here acquired new nuance, force and appeal.
As the title suggests, "Configurations" is an abstraction, and much concerned with dynamic and spatial patternings. But it is impossible to ignore its more overtly expressive aspects. By now, a number of people have remarked on a resemblance to Jerome Robbins' "The Dreamer" of 1979, that, like "Configurations," is set to a ruminative piano concerto (by Prokofiev) and casts Baryshnikov as a man in agitated quest of something, someone. In both ballets, too, the lead couple never quite solidifies its relationship, which is left in mysterious limbo. The dramatic implications are more ephemeral in Goh's work, but paradoxically, this seems an important part of the work's power -- much more is hinted at than is ever stated, and it's these darkling hints that stir and perturb us.
"Billy the Kid," with Danilo Radojevic in the title role and Elaine Kudo, Michael Owen and Raymond Serrano in other key parts, seemed only intermittently satisfying last night. Though Radojevic danced with admirable punch and is gradually becoming a convincing Billy, the tide of dramatic conviction failed to sustain itself over the performance as a whole. Still less successful was the opening "Les Sylphides" -- despite sporadic lyrical felicities, especially from Cynthia Harvey and Lisa Rinehart, the dancing was singularly lethargic, and nearly bereft of either pulse or feeling.