Ruthanna Boris' "Cakewalk," created more than 30 years ago, still can make audiences laugh out loud. Last night at the Kennedy Center, the Joffrey Ballet had just the right touch of satire and nostalgia to make "Cakewalk" seem new.
The dancers play recognizable stock characters. There's an emcee who becomes an inept magician; a wallflower who wilts and pouts; a premier danseur who pines away for, only to be shot by, his love. Choreography, rather than hamming, paints the characters; the ballet's pace is rapid--Boris knew how to set up a joke and deliver a punch line; and the Gala Cakewalk finale, with all the dancers parading across the stage, provides a rousing finish.
Last night the dancing from the principals was fine, although that of the ensemble was ragged. Jerel Hilding played the magician as a combination all-American boy and snake-oil salesman; Denise Jackson and Philip Jerry, as dippy heroine of the Romantic ballet and her dazed porteur, were delightfully funny.
Time was when Joffrey programs concentrated on character ballets such as "Cakewalk," but recent trends in ballet have shifted toward the abstract, and the Joffrey is following this trend. Marjorie Mussman's "Random Dances" is a pleasant exercise in the genre. Set to a gentle piano score by Jonathan Hancock, the choreography consists mostly of turns and arabesques, performed by seven dancers in filmy white costumes with touches of color. Like many ballets of this sort, the dancers seem to be strangers to each other, each dancing in his or her own cocoon, but there's a youthful, breezy tone to the work as well as a refreshing lack of acrobatics.
Laura Dean's "Fire" is an abstract ballet, too, but with a difference. There is something solemn and childlike about "Fire." Michael Graves' scenery and costumes suggest a child's picturebook version of ancient times and there is a pristine primitivism in both the choreography and music.
The dance patterns are ritualistic in a child's way, too. Six women dance, then five, then four, until there is but one. Patterns and steps are repeated until each is resolved. The dance begins very slowly, builds with a controlled frenzy, then ends quietly with a pas de deux. The 12 dancers were excellent, keeping the tension of the ballet with clean ensemble work.