The Houston Ballet led off its second week at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night with a program featuring the world premiere of artistic director Ben Stevenson's "The Miraculous Mandarin," an exotic narrative ballet in one act set to Bela Bartok's noteworthy orchestral score.
Like the other two ballets of the evening, "Mandarin" is a genre piece whose primary intention is to show off the company dancers, as individuals and as an ensemble, and particularly to display their theatrical versatility. In these respects, the new work is altogether successful. The choreography, as polished as it is in craftsmanship, won't go down in history for breaking any new ground -- indeed, it hews pretty much to the stereotypes of its species. But it does make an effective, histrionically charged vehicle for its cast, especially Li Cunxin in the title role and Mary McKendry as Mimi, the prostitute who lures him to his doom.
McKendry, who was scheduled to make her bow in the part Thursday evening, danced in place of Janie Parker, who was prevented from appearing in the premiere by an injury sustained in last week's "Swan Lake." She fractured a rib in taking Odette's sacrificial leap from a cliff during a weekend performance of the classic. With the valor of a dedicated trouper, however, Parker did perform in the American premiere of Joe Layton's "The Grand Tour" last night, in the less physically taxing role of the American Lady.
Bartok completed the tense, acerbic music for "Mandarin" in 1919 (apart from later revisions), and it's had numerous realizations as a ballet since the first production in 1926, finding its way into the repertories of the Sadler's Wells Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet, among other companies. Todd Bolender's 1951 staging for the New York City Ballet had a recent revival in Kansas City. I can't compare Stevenson's version to these earlier ones because I haven't seen any of them. But the new "Mandarin" has a family likeness to other works centering on theatricalized sex and violence, such as Birgit Cullberg's "Miss Julie," Roland Petit's "Carmen" and Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson." The role of Mimi even has echoes as distant as the Siren in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" (1929).
The "Mandarin" story is more than a bit on the obscure side. Three thugs use the prostitute as a decoy for their robbery victims. A dandyish old drunk and a young boy are drawn into the net and booted out when they are found to be penniless. Next comes the mysterious Mandarin, who is stripped of his rich garments by the thugs. When they try to kill him, however -- first by smothering, then stabbing, and lastly hanging -- he remains obstinately, miraculously alive, until at last Mimi is touched by his unquenchable passion for her and kisses him, whereupon he finally bleeds and dies.
The main impact of Stevenson's ballet comes from Cunxin's performance as the Mandarin and McKendry's as Mimi. Cunxin is striking from the moment of his highlighted entrance, through his feverishly lustful pursuit of Mimi, to his last tortured throes. Stevenson gives him a low, lunging prowl, along with serpentine arm movements, to express his obsessive desire and strange intensity, and Cunxin fills out the choreographic portraiture with a charismatic aura of his own. McKendry's tough, bawdy, lascivious Mimi, though more conventional in type with its erotic posturings and predatory legs, is equally impressive as a performance.
Still, the riddles of the plot aren't entirely resolved, however deft these characterizations. One is never quite sure when or how or why McKendry's response to the Mandarin changes from fear into attraction or sympathy, and the Mandarin himself remains fairly enigmatic.
Apart from the lead performances, the effect of the ballet rests as much on the atmosphere projected by Matthew C. Jacobs' two-level, warehouse set, the lighting by Tony Tucci and Hal George's apt costumes, as on the finely honed performances in subsidiary roles by Dorio Pe'rez, John Grensback and Gregg Garrett as the thugs, Timothy O'Keefe as the older victim and Brent Davi as the boy.
"Mandarin" was sandwiched between two ballets of a humorous sort, both rather flimsy in choreographic content. "The Grand Tour," created for the Royal Ballet in 1971, is an overextended trifle wholly dependent on extrachoreographic accouterments for its slender charms. For instance, the music is by Noel Coward (as arranged by Hershey Kay) and the cast of characters in this Jazz Age shipboard frolic includes such luminaries as Coward himself, Gertrude Lawrence, G.B. Shaw and Mary Pickford, among others. Parker's dowdy, aging but vivacious American Lady, forever taking snapshots or knitting, is something of a hoot, and Parker made the most of the role's comic opportunities. The celebrities play round robin with each other in a series of partnered social dances, allowing Pe'rez as Coward, Kenneth McCombie as Shaw, Laurie Volny as Pickford, Garrett as Douglas Fairbanks, Glen Tarachow as Gertrude Stein, Martha Butler as Alice B. Toklas, and Lauren Anderson as Theda Bara all to shine briefly in their broad impersonations. John Conklin's appealingly stylized Art Deco set and costumes are significant enhancements.
Somewhat more substantial, but all too heavy-handed and obvious in its witticisms, was Jiri Kylian's "Symphony in D," which opened the program. All the same, this ensemble ballet of 1976, seen here during the Houston's previous Washington visit in 1983, was given a wonderfully crisp, scintillating performance by last night's cast of eight couples, as the company as a whole continued to demonstrate its spirit, strength and resilience.