Quality has a way of announcing itself. So many dance events fall into that middle distance between mediocrity and distinction that one is never entirely sure afterward how to take their measure. When something indubitably fine comes along, however, uncertainty vanishes, or better yet, never arises in the first place.
Thus it was with Finis Jhung's Chamber Ballet U.S.A., which made its area debut Saturday night at Fairfax High School as part of a Community Concerts subscription series. It's worth noting that the event was scarcely publicized, yet it drew an audience of perhaps 800 to the modest but congenial performing space.
It took only a few minutes for the troupe to establish that this is a group of dancers who know what they are doing, do it well and do it with conspicuous love for the activity. One usually thinks of ballet as a grand, opera house affair involving hundreds of personnel and elaborate theatrical trappings. Chamber Ballet, though not the first of its kind, proves that ballet can be very satisfying on a much less imperial scale.
The company has eight dancers yet manages to touch a variety of stylistic bases in its repertory and gives all eight performers more than ample opportunity to display individual talent, as well as notable ensemble rapport.
Founder and artistic director Finis Jhung was himself a distinguished dancer with such troupes as the Joffrey Ballet and the Harkness Ballet. Since 1972 he has run a ballet school in New York that has won a reputation as one of the finest in the city -- Jhung is known in the ballet world as one of the elite teachers toward whom very good dancers gravitate. All this is reflected in the touring troupe he established four years ago, which now includes such dancers as Christine Redpath, formerly of the New York City Ballet; Jeff Satinoff, one of the Feld Ballet's mainstays for nine years; Martha Purl, once the jewel of the Maryland Ballet; and Marc Spradling, formerly with the Washington Ballet and one of that company's most impressive male dancers of recent years.
Among the examples of new choreography, which the program mostly consisted of, the most impressive was Helgi Tomasson's "Contredances," created for the Chamber Ballet and given its premiere last year in Colorado. Tomasson, one of the era's memorable dancers, recently retired from the New York City Ballet and soon to be artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, has only recently begun making ballets. "Contredances," set to music by Beethoven, gives strong evidence of his creative gifts -- stronger, perhaps, than the tasteful but bland "Ballet d'Isoline," which I had seen earlier as danced by the New York City Ballet.
"Contredances" is very much in a traditional mold and it mirrors Tomasson's background with Balanchine in its formal clarity and economy. A suite of dances for three couples, it has no radical or startlingly original tendencies. But it wins one over with its warmth, charm and exceptional musicality. It's also splendidly tailored to the specific traits of its dancers, including strong, sparky Redpath, smoothly lyrical Purl, brightly stalwart Spradling and spry Thomas McManus.
It was an amazingly well balanced program for a troupe necessarily limited in physical scope. Besides the Tomasson, it included the premiere of Jhung's "La Favorita," an ebullient divertissement for six dancers set to music by Donizetti; a pas de deux from Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes," gamely performed by Satinoff and Seung-Hae Joo; and a compellingly expressionistic duet, "Between Spaces," to music by Webern, danced with an impressive range of psychological and erotic overtones by its choreographer, company member William Soleau, and Redpath. All in all, Chamber Ballet U.S.A. would seem to verify that it's not size that counts, but what you do with it.