If the American Ballet Theatre was trying to impress us with its glamor, brio and razzle-dazzle, the attempt succeeded in spades. The company's program last night -- the start of a three-week run at the Kennedy Center Opera House -- seemed designed to put a maximum number of individual dancers on view, in as wide a range of styles as a single evening would allow, with a particular emphasis on brilliance of delivery.
The occasion also marked the beginning of the troupe's national tour, after a successfully concluded three-week visit to Japan and a month's rehearsal in New York. Perhaps that's one reason the company -- or as much as we saw of it last night -- looked so fresh, eager and shipshape. In any case, it was an exhilarating way to launch the engagement here.
Last night's pie ce de re'sistance was George Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations," seen in its first-ever staging by ABT, with costumes by Karinska, lighting by David K.H. Elliott, and Cynthia Harvey and Fernando Bujones leading an ensemble of nine. Created in 1960 as part of a New York City Ballet "Salute to Italy" program, it's a breezy, lighthearted piece -- not one of Balanchine's blockbusters, but very plainly deserving of its enduring popularity. NYCB gave it a new production in 1971, from which the present costumes derive; Balanchine amended the choreography, and the "new look" underscored the Bournonvillian aspects of the piece -- its speed and scintillating charm. The ballet has been in the repertory of at least 16 other companies domestic and foreign, including the Joffrey Ballet and the Maryland Ballet.
Despite its lightweight character, both the inspiration and workmanship are of an order only a Balanchine could muster. In form, it's basically an extended but traditional five-part pas de deux, with the ensemble -- three men partnering two women apiece -- serving as a lively framing device. But the bubbly, operatic score (taken from the composer's "Don Sebastian") elicited from Balanchine a veritable cornucopia of sparkling ingenuities. The whole lexicon of classical steps is involved, but there's a special profusion of jumps and leg-beats, both in-place and traveling. A dancer once likened "Donizetti" to "an endless series of finales."
ABT has given the ballet a somewhat new flavor, perhaps overdoing its burlesque elements a mite. There's a spot in the finale, for instance, where the six women stand shyly hiding their eyes, and one of them suddenly peeps around, steps forward and executes a flurry of steps as if she were the star of the show; just as suddenly, she realizes the incongruity and moves sheepishly back to her place. Here, and elsewhere, the ABT cast tended to plug the gag excessively, gilding the lily with histrionics.
On the other hand, the performance was dazzlingly brisk, clear and cohesive, and it made a wonderful showcase for Harvey and Bujones. Bujones, who hasn't appeared here in a number of seasons, reminded us forcibly that he's one of the world's leading pyrotechnicians, but he also seems no longer to feel a need to exaggerate his prowess with distorting mannerisms -- at age 29, the artist in him is taking the upper hand over the virtuoso. As for Harvey, she matched knife-edge technique with an airy delicacy that exactly suited the ballet.
The evening led off with "Raymonda," the me'lange of divertissements from the Petipa-Glazunov classic staged by ABT artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov four years ago and given its premiere at the Kennedy Center. The performances since seem to have been progressing steadily toward the ideal Baryshnikov aimed at -- a paradigm of 19th-century Russian imperial style -- and last night's rendering continued that trend. Both the national dances and the classical passages were more polished and unified in tone than ever, though rough spots remain.
Cynthia Gregory, as the featured ballerina of the classical contingent, danced with a serene radiance that was nothing short of glorious. Her playful control of the phrasing, along with wondrous strength and balance, marked this as a genuinely great performance -- the audience understandably showered her with applause. Ross Stretton was her adept and considerate partner.
Bravura display was taken even further in the "Corsaire" pas de deux performed by Martine van Hamel and Patrick Bissell, in a tasteful variant version derived from Galina Samsova. Van Hamel combined tremendous physical majesty with a kind of lofty sensuality that lowered the customary kitsch level of the duet to a reasonable minimum. Bissell, gunning for breakneck heroic effect, was very impressive but still rather on the untamed side.
Bringing up the rear was Lynne Taylor-Corbett's crowd-pleasing "Great Galloping Gottschalk," a sort of abstract carnival for Latin hippies, by turns gaudy, flippant and melodramatic, but effectively laid out. Susan Jaffe and Robert La Fosse were teasingly passionate in their flamboyant duet. Lisa Rinehart (not Kristine Soleri, as the program had it) was the woman torn between romantic alternatives in the moody solo. Gil Boggs and Johan Renval clowned boisterously in their competitive number, and Elaine Kudo was aptly slinky in the opening revel.