It rained on American Ballet Theatre's parade at Wolf Trap last night, as the company began a week of performances at Filene Center -- the troupe's first appearance ever at this location. The water, however, did nothing to dampen the spirits of the audience. Even the lawn sitters stuck to their positions in rapt attention. The magic of world-class dancing, it seems, is weatherproof.
For its opening night, the company brought a repertory program presumably designed for a summer crowd. It wasn't exactly a lightweight assortment, but a collection of best sellers all in a rather similar vein as ballets go, with familiar music by Glazunov, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Four great choreographers of the past and present were represented -- Petipa, by the Divertissements from Acts II and III of his "Raymonda," as staged by ABT artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov; Fokine, by "Les Sylphides"; Balanchine, by "Theme and Variations"; and Jerome Robbins, by "Other Dances."
Of these, "Raymonda" came closest to ideal realization. Artistically speaking, the evening divided itself into unequal halves -- the periods when Martine van Hamel was on stage, and those when she wasn't. Brussels-born van Hamel, who joined ABT in 1971 and is now 39, has her ups and downs like any other artist and may be past her physical prime. But when she's on, as she decidedly was last night, there's nothing in the ballet world to surpass her magnificence. This is particularly so of her Petipa repertoire; it's hard to think of another dancer over the past decade more resplendently attuned to that classical master's style. To see the majesty of her bearing as Raymonda, the purity of her line, the radiance of her visage, her mellifluent phrasing, the refined passion of her gesture, is to feel, "yes, this is what Petipa meant, this is how this ballet should look." There's not a false or an arbitrary note anywhere, and even watching her, alone on stage in the finale, from the remoteness of the edge of the greensward, one sees the whole of the style implicit in her smallest move.
As van Hamel's cavalier in "Raymonda," Patrick Bissell had his size in his favor, and a nobility of carriage. He was, moreover, a fine partner, presenting van Hamel with deference and unobtrusive support. His own dancing, however, as often in the past, seemed a shade out of control, despite splendid bravura passages. Elaine Kudo and Raymond Serrano led a snappy, if rather hasty, Mazurka ensemble, and Leslie Browne and Victor Barbee hammed up the Grand Pas Hongrois to an appropriate degree, with spirited assistance from their royally attired retinue. The four men in the male Pas de Quatre, moreover -- Gil Boggs, Wes Chapman, John Gardner and William Stolar -- fared better than most quartets with this treacherously virtuosic chestnut.
The evening's other performances were more than respectable, certainly, yet each seemed off the mark for one reason or another. It prompted a surge of jingoistic pride to see the quartet of principals in "Les Sylphides" -- Marianna Tcherkassky, Cheryl Yeager, Amanda McKerrow and Peter Fonseca, all of whom had the major portion of their training in Washington. On this occasion, though, only Tcherkassky looked completely at one with the ballet and its elusive moods, as well groomed as the others' dancing was in most respects, and as picturesque a frame as the surrounding ensemble made.
The duet "Other Dances" was created originally for Baryshnikov and Makarova (in 1976), and though many couples have assayed it since, few plumb its subtle blend of Neoclassicism and folkloristic touches, or its romantic vicissitudes, as successfully. Robert La Fosse danced well, but though he didn't seem to be consciously copying anyone in particular, his performance had the look of imitation, of simulated, rather than personally conceived, character. Susan Jaffe, by contrast, has found a way to make the choreography her own, in her typically coquettish manner, but there wasn't much depth or nuance to what she did, nor any convincing rapport with La Fosse.
As the lead couple of "Theme and Variations," Cynthia Harvey and Ross Stretton danced not only with a sense of mutual harmony, but also with considerable authority and musicality in one of the most challenging of choreographic contexts. And Balanchine's intricate and ingenious designs always carry gratifications of their own, if given half a chance. Yet, despite these blessings, and seemly support from an ensemble of 20, the piece missed the kind of rapturous luminosity it achieves when the music seems to flow directly through the dancers' souls.
Paul Connelly and Jack Everly were the evening's able conductors; Connelly was also the stalwart piano soloist for "Other Dances."