"Abdallah" has arrived, finally, and shed its warm, gentle, merry glow on Washington, to the general delight of the glittery capacity crowd on hand at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night for the ballet's East Coast premiere.
"Abdallah," in case you tuned in late, was choreographed in 1855 by August Bournonville, sovereign Danish ballet master of the 19th century, who also created a schooling, a repertory and a tradition that were to become the shining legacy of the Royal Danish Ballet and one of the enduring treasures of the art as a whole. Long considered among Bournonville's many "lost" works, "Abdallah" was lovingly and carefully resurrected by Bruce Marks, artistic director of Utah's Ballet West, and former Danish ballerina Toni Lander, with the assistance of several Bournonville experts in Denmark.
Last February in Salt Lake City, Ballet West presented the world premiere of the reconstruction to much acclaim, including glowing praise from Danish critics. But the company saved the Atlantic seaboard premiere for the nation's capital, where anticipation has been running high. The event drew a major slice of the dance press, metropolitan and national. Frank Andersen, the 31-year-old newly appointed director of the Royal Danish Ballet, flew in for the occasion from China, where that company is on tour.
The single most appropriate adjective for "Abdallah" would be "charming." As a feat of scholarship and staging, the Ballet West production is surely a marvel in its own right. That it was an American troupe -- and especially one from the "hinterlands" -- that did it adds a special fillip to the achievement. As to the delicate matter of style, the evident fidelity to the form and spirit of Bournonville demands the utmost admiration -- we know from so many blighted attempts by even the most exalted of domestic troupes how much of a challenge was involved. All this is a tremendous compliment particularly to Toni Lander, who carried out the most detailed and demanding aspects of the choreographic task, and to whom these "Abdallah" performances are dedicated.
The dancing last night, moreover, from the leads to the ensemble, was excellent by and large, and the physical production -- the sets and costumes by Danish designer Jens-Jacob Worsaae -- is resplendent enough to hold the eye and imagination on its own merits.
The only rub is that as prodigiously charming a ballet as "Abdallah" proves itself to be, it is not in any sense a major work. It is not, for example, on a plane with the finest surviving Bournonville creations, such as "La Sylphide," "A Folk Tale" or "Kermess in Bruges." Possibly this is because something was inevitably lost in the guesswork necessarily a part of the reconstruction process. But some frailties seem inherent in the ballet itself.
The plot concerns Abdallah the cobbler and his sweetheart Irma, who save Sheik Ismail from Turkish invaders. As a reward, Abdallah is given a magic, five-branch candlestick that will bring the fulfilment of his wishes. This is where Bournonville's typical sense of moral order intervenes. Abdallah can dream and wish for material and sensual pleasures, but if he overdoes it, he's a goner. Succumbing to temptation, the hero lights the forbidden fifth candle, and loses the luxurious clothes, palace and harem secured with previous wishes, as well as everything else, including Irma. But charity and love set things right in the end.
Miguel Garcia and Lee Provancha Day are thoroughly disarming as Abdallah and Irma, and the chirping melodiousness of their Bournonvillian footwork and phrasing wouldn't be easy to duplicate in other American troupes. Among the rest of the cast, Lisa La Manna was conspicuous as one of the Sheik's daughters for bright crisp dancing and open Bournonvillian carriage. Odette Milner danced ably as Palmyra, leader of the harem, but one can also imagine a more seductively tinged account of the role. Dramaturgically, choreographically and scenically, the ballet tends to wind down rather than build up. The most captivating dancing and the most stunning visual background -- the parapet-lined public square in Basra, framed by tall-masted ships and onion-turreted spires at the rear -- both come in the first act. The big, spectacular effects, such as the blinding flash and swirl of smoke attending the transformation of Abdallah's hovel into a palace, are all in the second act. The third and final act has too much needless plot detour before it arrives at the celebratory divertissements, in themselves somewhat on the thin side.
"Abdallah" is a romantic comedy, but it's no match for the best of Bournonville in either aspect. There's no major pas de deux for the lovers. Holger Simon Paulli's musical score is amiable but not especially memorable. The ballet has neither the dark, soulful glints of "La Sylphide," nor the comic ingenuity of "Kermess," nor the transporting fantasy of "A Folk Tale," nor the virtuosic brilliance we know from "Napoli."
None of this means it wasn't worth doing, or that it isn't wonderfully enjoyable -- it's only a question of looking at it with reasonable expectations. For the ballet world on all points of the compass, "Abdallah" is a splendid memento of the 19th century, preserved for us now and hereafter through the unstinting dedication of Marks, Lander and Ballet West.
Last night's cast can be seen again Saturday evening. A different cast performs "Abdallah" tonight and Sunday afternoon.