It's hard to sympathize with Peer Gynt, hero of Ben Stevenson's ballet of that name that the Houston Ballet presented at Kennedy Center's Opera House this weekend. Peer breaks the hearts of a passel of wimpy women in the course of the ballet's two acts and is disagreeably impish while doing so. His soul is saved through no thought or deed of his own, and his most lovable act is taking his mother for an imaginary buggy ride on her deathbed.
It doesn't help that Stevenson's choreography is vapid and unmemorable, or that the complicated plot (impossible to follow without the program) goes all to hell in the second act. What pleasure there is in "Peer Gynt," aside from Peter Farmer's striking designs and two terrific camels in the desert scene, can come only from the dancers.
Li Cunxin, who made his Washington debut as Peer Saturday afternoon, provided a great deal of pleasure indeed. Li's manner is as modest as his physical gifts are prodigious. His dancing is sharp and quick -- the fast, perfectly centered turns are particularly marvelous -- and he is a classical stylist, as concerned with preparations and landings as midair tricks.
Li is more naturally boyish than Kenneth McCombie, who danced the Washington premiere of "Peer Gynt" and on whom the role was created, and so his scamperings and antics in the ballet's early scenes were a bit easier to take. His acting is quiet and understated, his presence authoritative, and he uses movement to show emotion as much as he does his open, expressive face.
Mary McKendry repeated her role as the constant Solveig (Janie Parker, scheduled to make her local debut in the role, was still injured) and danced with considerable passion. The company as a whole seemed much more at home in "Peer Gynt" than last week's "Swan Lake," dancing with ease and miming with conviction.