The risks of new ballets being what they are, the Dance Theatre of Harlem chose to put the world premiere of John McFall's "Toccata e Due Canzoni" first on last night's program at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It was just as well. The piece turned out to be unmemorable -- competently crafted, but diffuse in formal and expressive focus. It was left to Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free" and Billy Wilson's "Concerto in F," repeated from Tuesday evening's bill, to restore the euphoric highs of the company's opening night.
The troupe is to be applauded, however, for going out on a limb with McFall in the first place. Tomorrow's classics will be found among today's precarious new ventures, and the only way to determine which deserve to survive is through the trial by fire of fully staged performance.
McFall wasn't an illogical choice. The 40-year-old choreographer, recently named artistic director of Ballet Metropolitan in Columbus, Ohio, has created works for the San Francisco Ballet (he danced with the company for more than 15 years), the National Ballet of Canada and American Ballet Theatre, among other troupes. ABT patrons may recall his male duet to Stravinsky, "Follow the Feet," commissioned by Mikhail Baryshnikov a few years ago -- a not uninteresting opus.
"Toccata e Due Canzoni" is set to music of that title by the 20th-century Czech composer Boshuslav Martinu (d. 1959), and the ballet's troubles begin here. The score is a workmanlike sample of neoclassicism, but rather featureless -- the only clearly discernible melodic theme comes in the first movement, and the rest of the music vamps endlessly in undistinguished patterns.
The choreography has similar drawbacks. Virginia Johnson and Carld Jonassaint are the designated principals, but apart from an unremarkable solo for Johnson in the first movement and a briefly rapturous duet for the pair in the finale, the two of them rather fade into the background. The middle movement concentrates on ensemble work -- a belligerent, fist-clenching section for the men, repeated afterward in a variant for the women. Though there are recurring landmarks -- the opening twisted poses of Johnson and Jonassaint, for instance, which return just before the end -- the ballet as a whole seems as shapeless and uneventful as the music.
For area dance fans, the most striking aspect of the piece may be its strong stylistic resemblance to the work of the Washington Ballet's Choo-San Goh. The influence may well be unconscious, but it's decisively manifest in the pushing arms, the swung-up lifts, the overlapping ensemble entrances, the women draped on male backs and other imagery so characteristic of Goh (who also used Martinu's music once, in a far more effective work).
In any case, let it be said that the DTH cast gave the new piece its utmost, in a performance that had its share of unsteady moments -- understandable in a premiere -- but always reflected the commitment and energy of the dancers.
Aside from pure delight, one of the pleasures of the DTH interpretation of "Fancy Free" is the way it reminds us what a masterpiece of compression, economy and theatrical savvy this 40-year-old ballet remains. Robbins draws upon an incredible diversity of genres, including folk, tap, social, jazz and modern dance as well as ballet, but they all come out of his choreographic blender in one seamless amalgam. And he can turn even the tying of shoelaces to pointed dramatic effect. The company's dancing, in the Robbins and Wilson's "Concerto in F," was sharp, scintillating and beautifully modulated -- in a word, terrific.