The Washington Ballet's opening program of the 1985-86 season drew a capacity crowd to Lisner Auditorium last night. This kind of turnout for a midweek series opener (there'll be three repeat performances between tonight and Saturday evening) is rare enough to be worth noting. Perhaps it's a sign that the city is at last ready to support its only professional ballet company to a degree proportionate to the honor the troupe has brought us both nationally and internationally. It also reflects well on the company's renewed efforts to reach out to all segments of the public.
The audience, moreover, loved what they saw, roaring and clapping out their approval. This too is an encouraging signal, possibly the more so since what they were seeing wasn't altogether the best the company has shown itself capable of in the past.
The evening's one premiere was an elaborately staged version of "Firebird," set to the familiar Stravinsky score, by Caracas-born Vicente Nebrada. Nebrada is a choreographer of distinguished pedigree who has mounted a ballet previously for the Washington troupe -- "A Handel Celebration," in 1982, no masterpiece but a useful showcase for company dancers and an easy crowd pleaser. But why follow this up, if at all, with a mediocre "Firebird" that's not even new or specially tailored to the company (the work had its premiere in Canada three years ago)?
The first "Firebird," by Michel Fokine for the Diaghilev company in 1910, was a sensational breakthrough for its time, and as seen in revivals, it retains its picturesque enchantment. Of the many choreographers who've tried since, including George Balanchine in more than one attempt, none has succeeded in remotely matching the Fokine. Most "Firebirds," Nebrada's among them, end up with forgettable choreography overpowered by score, sets and costumes.
The decor for the Nebrada production, by A. Christina Giannini -- which would be perfectly apt for "Green Mansions," with its gnarled tree stalks, mists, iridescences and steamy flora and fauna -- is impressive in its tacky way. But the ballet as a whole, including its visual designs, does nothing for Stravinsky's music that it doesn't do far better for itself, unaided. Nebrada keeps the orignal plot outlines, more or less: the magic Firebird saves the Prince from the thrall of an evil sorcerer and unites him with the Princess. Except that in the Nebrada version, the setting is tropical (better accomplished by John Taras in his version for Dance Theatre of Harlem, often seen here); the evil Magician is given a female consort and a child; and his retinue consists of a Snake and squad of Iguanas.
The cliche'-laden choreography does little for the Washington Ballet cast. Cynthia Anderson, as she shows elsewhere in the program, is a bold, sturdy dancer, but the preening, arm flapping and frequent jumps don't turn her into a Firebird -- she lacks the electric velocity and lightness the role demands. John Goding's Prince and Lynn Cote's Princess are even less well served by their routine solos and duets, and the rest, apart from Danna Cronin's sparky Snake, are virtual clotheshorses.
In short, the company is neither stretched nor refreshened by the ballet; this is the sort of repertory the Washington Ballet, given its recent aspirations, should have long since outgrown.
It was left, then, to the splendid work of the company's associate artistic director and resident choreographer Choo-San Goh to redeem the program, which it did in large part. Here the drawbacks came from another direction. Since last season the company has lost a number of its best talents. All but one of the present eight men are newcomers, and three of the 11 women as well. It's too early to tell how this lineup will work out in the long run, though they looked reasonably good for a first time out. But Goh's choreography, with its characteristic body sculpture, its peculiar angularities of limb and its sharp directional changes, presents challenges to dancers that can't be surmounted instantly. It's bound to take a while before the troupe regains the sensitivity to Goh's idiom it built up previously.
All the same, both "Momentum" and the haunting "In the Glow of the Night" were pleasures to see once more. Julie Miles and Janet Shibata, in "Glow," came closest to evoking the powerful Goh spell of old.