At Wolf Trap's Meadow Center last night, the Joffrey II Dancers made a bright, strong impression in the first of three programs they're presenting here. That impression might have been all the brighter and stronger had the order of the evening's four ballets simply been reversed.
Joffrey II, founded in 1969, is the self-described "farm team" for the larger, better-known Joffrey Ballet, one of the nation's leading ballet organizations. The junior troupe, consisting of 16 dancers, tours mostly to smaller cities and towns, performs to recorded music and functions primarily as a proving ground for promising young dancers. Because the troupe feeds into the senior company fairly often, the turnover is fairly rapid--almost half the current complement is new since this past spring, for example. The Joffrey II's one famous member--Ron Reagan--has left the field entirely.
For a company of this size, means and scope, the current crop of dancers looks quite splendid, judged by last night's sampling--the technique appears clean and crisp, the dance manners refined and the sense of ensemble very nicely developed. What's more, under the leadership of artistic director Sally Brayley Bliss, something admirable has happened since the company's last visit to this area, two years ago at Lisner Auditorium--namely, a pronounced emphasis on new, relatively untried choreography. Over the span of the three programs of the Wolf Trap engagement, eight local premieres will be offered, of which six will be ballets by women choreographers.
Not surprisingly, the newer works last night--by Los Angeles choreographer Bill De Young and former Joffrey ballerina Ann Marie De Angelo--paled somewhat alongside the sturdy pieces by Robert Joffrey and Sir Frederick Ashton that opened the program.
The evening's finale--De Angelo's "In Kazmidity"--had, superficially, all the elements for a smash finish, but turned out to be the program's weakest ingredient. Set to excerpts from Leo Delibes' "Sylvia" score, it attempts a whimsical spoof of ballet romanticism that falls prey to an overdose of cuteness and humdrum choreography. A young couple dressed in jeans and T-shirts is "attacked" by sylphs, who ensnare the man and spirit him off to the mythical kindgom of Kazmidity, where he's inducted into the Kazmite clan and wooed by its Queen. The best that can be said for it is the way it displays the touch-toe jumps and whirlwind pirouettes of Randall Graham (the young man) in his concluding solo.
A better-knit and more consistent piece was De Young's moody "Rothko Chapel," inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko and set to a fittingly sparse, abstract score by Morton Feldman. De Young's idiom is an eclectic modern dance pastiche that suggests a soft-edge version of Martha Graham. The work sustains a brooding atmosphere and evolves convincingly from moment to moment, but it fails to build any memorable shape or statement as a whole, and the dancing lacked some of the grit the style would seem to call for.
It was the earlier portions of the program that allowed the company to show its mettle to best advantage. The performance of Ashton's haunting trio "Monotones II"--a masterpiece in miniature--didn't have all the fluency and concentration one would hope for, but it did capture the ballet's moonstruck elegance, and Elizabeth Parkinson's taut, full-out extensions provided keen highlights. No less winning in terms of execution was Joffrey's neo-romantic "Pas de De'esses" (which might be translated "Dance of the Goddesses"), with Jennifer Habig, Linda Bechtold and the exceptionally musical Tina Leblanc as the three legendary 19th-century ballerinas Grahn, Cerrito and Taglioni, and Tyler Walters as their deferential partner, Saint-Leon.
On the remaining programs tonight and tomorrow are six more Washington premieres, as well as the "Wedding Pas de Deux" from "Coppelia."