It's okay for a story ballet to need program notes, but the ballet should tell you more. It ought to show things that words alone can not convey. "Amnon V'Tamar," which American Ballet Theatre introduced to its Kennedy Center public last night, has a story of passion and punishment that hinges on knowing who the characters are, how they are related and the nature of their moral qualms. ABT's program note delivers all that information. However, Martine van Hamel's choreography often remains curiously reticent.
In the midst of the action stands a distraught King David. He must punish Amnon, his son. The boy has just raped his own sister. David, though, is guilty of an equal offense: once upon a time, he loved another man. Can he, who is not blameless, be judge and executioner? Van Hamel shows us that, indeed, he can but she is silent when it comes to telling us by what sophistry the king justifies himself.
All this happens in an archaic stagescape, a sort of road show version by Oliver Smith of the archetypal Noguchi set for a Martha Graham choreodrama. Theoni Aldredge's costumes are lurid. The dancing is conceived on a heroic scale, with guilt expressed by tension from arm to arm across the chest and in abrupt endings. In texture, the movement is remarkably consistent throughout the piece and matched with George Calusdian's dense score.
The performers in van Hamel's ballet might have been mistaken for a Bolshoi cast attacking "Spartacus," so big were the dancing and the portrayals. Johan Renvall's Amnon was totally propelled by the energy of adolescent lust, yet had a classic contour. Amanda McKerrow, as Amnon's sister Tamar, knew how to yield to sensuality. It was in their consummation scene that van Hamel hinted at something beyond the printed story. We saw Tamar becoming as "guilty" as Amnon.
Clark Tippet was a David of tensile steel. The lover from David's past, Jonathan, was portrayed by Robert Hill, a dancer of promising amplitude. The choreographer herself, replacing an injured Magali Messac, had grandeur as David's queen, Bathsheba. Yet this seems a superfluous role unless Bathsheba is meant to symbolize David's salvation from the temptation of Jonathan. Again, the dancing was silent on this point. Also indefinite is Martine van Hamel's future. From this first ballet it is impossible to say whether the admired ballerina will yet become a choreographer.
Another "Raymonda" opened last night's program. Susan Jaffe, in the ballerina role, brought richness and calm to the dreamy first adagio. For later passages, in which the toe must have the stamping power of a heel, she hasn't yet the mature weight. The season's first "Theme and Variations" was uneven, with Cynthia Harvey and Kevin McKenzie giving its great classical pas de deux an abnormally romantic infusion. Paul Connelly was the evening's fine conductor.