Since its reorganization in 1976 along professional lines, the Washington Ballet has outdone itself often, but never more than last night at Lisner Auditorium in the first of a series of five performances. And this was true throughout a program that tested the troupe unrelentingly and from every standpoint--technical, stylistic and interpretive. It was a program, moreover, in which all three offerings were premieres of one sort or another. The staggeringly ambitious "Scenic Invitations," by resident choreographer and assistant artistic director Choo San Goh, was in fact a world premiere. Goh's "Due Pezzi Sacri," to two of Verdi's "Four Sacred Pieces," was created in 1981 for the Boston Ballet, but last night marked its Washington premiere. And George Balanchine's "Allegro Brillante" was a company premiere, a stalwart addition to the troupe's already considerable Balanchine repertory.
The Balanchine--a 1956 neoclassical abstraction to the music of Tchaikovsky's unfinished (i.e., one movement) Third Piano Concerto--began the evening with a bang. This is Balanchine at his speediest and most brilliant--the dancing seems to whoosh past in an uninterrupted flood; even though fiery bravura passages yield to lushly poetic ones and vice versa, the entire ballet is like a single phrase. The trick is to do simultaneous justice to its breakneck virtuosity and its extravagantly romantic Russian sentiment. The Washington Ballet really has got the hang of it, and it's a whale of a compliment both to Victoria Simon's staging and the company's training under director Mary Day just how Balanchinian the performance managed to appear. The piece also served as a wonderful showcase for prize-winning Bonnie Moore, whose dazzling legwork and incisive musicality astonish further with each viewing. Stephen Baranovics was her very adept partner, and the four subsidiary couples were splendid. Moore had a few shaky moments, as did others--they didn't seem to matter much in a performance this close to its artistic mark.
"Due Pezzi Sacri" clearly is devotional in atmosphere, and it is easy enough to see a stylized Virgin Mary in the main female role danced by Janet Shibata, though the work is devoid of explicit narrative. The ballet is "untypical" of Goh in the sense that it is prevailingly lyrical throughout, and in keeping with the undulant choral score, the dance shapes are sinuous and curvaceous, in place of what we've come to think of as Goh's characteristic angularity. In this respect and others, the opus suggests a preliminary study for the more recent "In the Glow of the Night"; the skyscape backdrop and subtly shifting lighting by Carol Vollet Garner and Tony Tucci, who also collaborated with the choreographer on "Glow," also are harbingers of the later ballet. The main imagery, like Verdi's music, seems to take its cues from Renaissance arts--if we hear Palestrina in the Verdi, we see Botticelli and Giotto in Goh's motifs of adoration, supplication and blessing. In the "Ave Maria," a protective ensemble divides to reveal Shibata hovering over a kneeling John Goding; the two then dance an extended rhapsodic duet. They are joined in the "Stabat Mater" by two echoing couples and three seraphic female attendants. Though the piece comes near at times to cloying excess, its unaffected core wins one over in the end.
"Scenic Invitations" is at the opposite pole of Goh's stylistic gamut. The body lines are marked by twisting torsos, skewed elbows, wrists and necks; the choreography is predominantly architectural in form and flavor, as are the spare framing of Garner's set and her anatomically revealing costumes. As musical underpinning, Goh has coupled Mozart's C Minor Adagio and Fugue with Beethoven's colossal "Grosse Fuge," Op. 133. Those are mighty high peaks to scale, though the attempt isn't without precedent--one of Goh's former choreographic mentors, Hans Van Manen, made a setting of the Beethoven more than a decade ago, for example. It's hard to tell from this first encounter whether Goh's grasp is sufficient unto his reach, but the effort is unquestionably a brave and insightful one. And exciting, too; it wouldn't be exaggerating to call the audience response tumultuous.
To match the mammoth musical structures, Goh has woven an exceptionally complex choreographic tapestry, though the strands always are clearly delineated. The theme of Mozart's fugue plunges down the scale; Beethoven's vaults upward, and Goh's designs have their complementary analogues to this and many other morphological features of the scores. The three principals--Lynn Cote, Julie Miles and Shibata--both lead and penetrate the ensemble of six couples, and in the end the entire group faces the audience in an attitude of open-armed embrace. This, by the way, was the only connection I could find to the title of the ballet, which otherwise remains a mystery to me. But by any name, "Scenic Invitations" is an imposing achievement.