Among the positive initiatives of Mikhail Baryshnikov's artistic leadership of American Ballet Theatre has been his search for new repertory by a rising, younger generation of choreographers. Washington's own Choo San Goh was one beneficiary of this quest, when his "Configurations"--commissioned by Baryshnikov--was adopted by the company in 1981. Lynne Taylor-Corbett, whose popular "Great Galloping Gottschalk" received its Washington premie re Tuesday night as ABT opened its Kennedy Center Opera House engagement this week, was another. The newest such opportunity has fallen to John McFall, an American dancer with the San Francisco Ballet for 15 years, who has been choreographing, mainly for his home company, since 1972. The world premie re of his "Follow the Feet," a duo for Baryshnikov and ABT soloist Robert La Fosse set to the music of Igor Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" (a 1946 score for clarinet and orchestra, dedicated to Woody Herman) was the central attraction of last night's ABT program.
At first sight it's a very odd piece of work--unclear in intention, equivocal in tone, more interesting for what it attempts to do than for what it succeeds in accomplishing. The choreography is skillful in a variety of ways, individual in look, surely eye-catching in places, but ultimately rather flat in effect.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the ballet is the way McFall has chosen to use Baryshnikov. It's as if the choreographer made a conscious decision not to exploit either Baryshnikov's superstardom, his peerless virtuosity or even his unique dance persona. One surmises that McFall wanted to try to go against the grain, as it were, to see what he could do to make a ballet unlike most of the previous vehicles created for Baryshnikov, a ballet that would be conspicuously unvehicular, resting its impact not on a particular dance personality but on its own intrinsic qualities of design.
In a way, McFall has succeeded, but it's manifestly a Pyrrhic victory. Baryshnikov virtually disappears in this work. Of course, he dances it brilliantly, and McFall has even given rein to Baryshnikov's gift for gestural and facial wisecracking, his boyish sense of fun and, to be sure, his impeccable technique. But Baryshnikov's personal presence, his artistic identity--usually the most prepossessing feature of any work he graces--vanishes in the anonymity of his role. His part is all but interchangeable with that of La Fosse, who is decidedly a superb young dancer, but just as decidedly no Baryshnikov. The two are paired like a vaudeville team in "Follow the Feet," but there's scarcely any differentiation--of character, step or function--between them. If the ballet proves anything, it's that it simply won't wash to treat Baryshnikov as just another one of the guys.
The title "Follow the Feet" would seem to be a gloss on the Fred Astaire film "Follow the Fleet," but as near as one can tell the reference ends there. The ballet opens strikingly enough--in silence, black drapes separate upstage to form an equilateral triangle, in the center of which is revealed Baryshnikov's still, silhouetted figure. As the light rises we see Santo Loquasto's "abstract" costume in silver and gray, a more or less form-fitting outfit with a suggestion of a stylized breastplate, a belt, and an incongruous ruffle at the knee. Baryshnikov flashes the fingers of his hands, in a gesture like one of the signature motifs of Balanchine's "Apollo." He advances with a kick, a spin, a jump, and then, as the triangle enlarges, the music commences (Kenneth Schermerhorn conducted; the solo clarinetist, who took a curtain bow, was uncredited in the program).
After a continuing, eccentric solo by Baryshnikov, La Fosse, in an identical costume, enters in a bound, and the duet commences. The movement is classically based, but lean, angular and jazzy, like the music, with sharply articulated arm joints. Sometimes the two dance in unison, sometimes in mirror opposition; La Fosse has some somersaults that Baryshnikov does not echo, and at one point, La Fosse lifts Baryshnikov high overhead. But their relationship remains enigmatic until the close, when they shake hands and exit, arms around shoulders, like a couple of pals, into the now-diminishing triangle. There's a hint of good-natured rivalry as the duet progresses, but it's never developed to a point of clarity, and the "why" of the ballet eludes perception.
The evening also saw the week's first performance of Balanchine's "Bourre'e Fantasque," with Magali Messac and Johan Renvall delightful as the broadly hilarious ballerina-cavalier couple in the opening movement; Cynthia Harvey and Ross Stretton as the lead couple in the second, not quite capturing the fey romanticism of the choreography; and Lisa de Ribere and Ronald Perry exuberantly heading the party-cake finale. The ensemble dancing was splendid throughout.
Messac danced the lead in the "Bayadere" Shades scene with far more authority and aloof grandeur than on Tuesday evening, and Kevin McKenzie, striving quite effectively for a bigger, more "Russian" dynamic than in the past, was also more assured. Still, Messac's Nikiya seemed so distanced from McKenzie's Solor, it was as though she was unaware that he ever existed--yes, she's but a ghost in a dream, but it's her lover's dream, after all. The single most unalloyed joy of the evening was the "Flower Festival at Genzano" pas de deux--Marianna Tcherkassky and Danilo Radojevic may have given the Bournonville idiom a pronounced American accent, but they danced the piece with endearing precision, buoyancy and lyricism all the same.