"Peer Gynt," the evening-length work by Ben Stevenson given its Washington premiere by the Houston Ballet Wednesday night, seems more like a mimed saga with dance trimmings than a ballet. As such, it also strikes one as the least substantial of the three programs the company has brought to the Kennedy Center Opera House this season, despite its dramatic ambitions and some flamboyant visual passages.
The choreography, and for that matter the rest of the stagecraft, are far from lacking in skill -- Stevenson, Houston's artistic director for the past decade, is much too well-grounded a craftsman for that. But the dancing almost never lives up to the emotional potential of the narrative, and most of it looks so hackneyed in style and form that it fails to register, like a picture you've seen so often you just stop seeing it.
It's easy to see what might have attracted Stevenson to the subject, at least on the surface. "Peer Gynt" would appear to be a heaven-sent "ballet opportunity." The plot revolves around a rustic rogue with a libertine's instincts and a penchant for adventure in exotic settings. Grieg's music and the Ibsen play that inspired it have prestige, and in Grieg's case, popularity. Add to that the public's longstanding preference for full-length story ballets. Also, Stevenson was probably familiar with an earlier version in the repertory of the London Festival Ballet when he was a member of that company, and it may have spawned a desire to try his own hand with the same material.
Possibly Ibsen saw in the picaresque tale of Peer Gynt, a Norwegian folk figure, the embodiment of a revolt against suffocating bourgeois conventions, including marriage and fidelity. Peer Gynt is a rebel with a cause all right -- to wander the world and pursue women promiscuously, preferably in combination. Only, unlike Don Juan, he never gets his comeuppance, but instead is saved by the imperturbable love of a woman he has betrayed over and over.
It was Ibsen who commissioned Grieg's incidental music for his play (supplemented in the ballet score with other Grieg pieces by arranger John Lanchbery). However well Grieg's music may work as a backdrop for the spoken drama, it doesn't add up as a ballet. Grieg's euphoric, mild, folksy and short-winded style doesn't lend itself to the large dramatic curve. It's got melody and charm, but little of the wild dark fantasy inherent in the story. The best of the music Grieg distilled into compact orchestral suites, unlike Tchaikovsky, whose greatest music for "The Nutcracker" lies entirely outside the popular suite.
To the implicit disadvantages of the score, Stevenson adds others. Most modern choreographers strive to suppress the mime elements and emphasize the dance in narrative ballets -- Stevenson does the reverse in "Peer Gynt." Moreover a number of the dance passages look like transplants from other ballets: Anitra's scene comes right out of "Scheherazade," except for her number with the bodyguards, which is transmuted "Sleeping Beauty"; the hero's drag-her-on-the-floor duet with Ingrid is vintage Cranko; and the Mountain King sequence manages to combine ingredients from "Swan Lake," "Firebird" and Bournonville's "A Folk Tale."
Finally, though Stevenson designed the title role for dancer Kenneth McCombie out of respect for his dramatic talents, I found it hard to understand what about him was supposed to excite all those women. He's a solid, experienced dancer, but not an obvious candidate for the part of a glamorous, youthful rapscallion, and while he's more than respectable technically, he's no flaming virtuoso either. He does well by the mime, it is true, but even there his gestures and expressions sometimes seem exaggeratedly studious.
Mary McKendry, as the ever-forgiving Solveig, and Carmen Mathe', in the nondance part of Peer's mother Aase, did as much as could be done with their pallid characters. The sporadic sparks of dance excitement were to be found among Peer's conquests or seducers -- Lauren Anderson as the Woman in Green, Rachel Jonell Beard as Anitra, Laurie Volny as the American Lady and Kristine Richmond as the Madwoman -- as well as in terse numbers like the male peasant trio at Ingrid's wedding. Special mention must go to Dennis Poole for his spectral presence as the death figure, the Stranger in Black. The remaining gratifications derived from Peter Farmer's decor -- not the first act, which looked like a recycled "Giselle," but the second, which afforded opportunities for a desert scene complete with mock camels, pyramids and harem girls; a highly cinematic shipwreck; and a gloomily cavernous Victorian madhouse.
In sum, you're not likely to be swept away with romantic rapture by this "Peer Gynt," but you may well be diverted by some piquant characterizations, Grieg's tunes, some of the stage spectacle and the Houston Ballet's typically splendid ensemble work.
Perhaps the moral of the piece is that you can't bring back the 19th century and that it's choreographically futile to try.
The production will be repeated Saturday evening and at Saturday and Sunday matinees, with principal cast changes for the afternoon performances.