Some images are haunting. Others simply nag. In the new "Francesca da Rimini," which American Ballet Theatre danced at the Kennedy Center last night, there is a whole stable full of nags. Francesca and Paolo, two handsome people, dance together while consulting a book. Are they reading about Adam and Eve, Launcelot and his lady or how to behave with each other? Dante and Virgil walk together, peering at Francesca and Paolo and other assorted couples; Virgil gesticulates. Are they voyeurs, critics or just plain jealous of all the entwined bodies scattered about the stage?
By being concrete about some details in Dante's story of illicit love, and vague about who does what to whom for what reason, choreographer John Taras has failed to provide pretexts for dancing. In the first part of the ballet there is a great deal of rushing about by a corps of the Fallen. These figures wear so many tatters of cloth that it's impossible to discern steps or dance structure.
When the action focuses on the two principal lovers, danced by Cynthia Gregory and Patrick Bissell, things begin to look up. Gregory has a solo of impetuous little motions draped over a highly stretched and finely arched Soviet-style stance. When Bissell joins her, carrying that book, they have a few decorative encounters, but not much more dancing of significance happens. Eventually four guards hack them to death, and they leave their fellow Young Lovers to join the Fallen.
Taras wasn't helped by either the designs for his ballet or the music. Rouben Ter-Arutunian's sets also mix literal imagery and pure form in an awkward way: finicky little arches against a blotch of gray on a black ground and tinsel tendrils next to geometric rocks. His costumes for the corps suggest that Dante's Inferno is a gypsy camp. The score, by Tchaikovsky, is an exercise in dissonance and not nearly as convincing as his indulgences in melody.
Although the rest of program was tuneful, harmonious Tchaikovsky, the Opera House Orchestra was having a rough night, with lots of wrong notes and some missing ones, too. Alan Barker conducted "Swan Lake Act II" with more flattering tempi than on Tuesday, and Bonnie Moore, again partnered by Mikhail Baryshnikov, was technically somewhat stronger. Why, though, are there some steps that the entire company slips through instead of dances fully?
Everyone sped through Balanchine's "Theme and Variations," but only Cynthia Harvey looked really comfortable at so incredible and unnecessary a pace. Was the pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty" a rehearsal? Martine van Hamel and Patrick Bissell were, for them, exceptionally slack. Results of the all-Tchaikovsky program were decidedly mixed for both ear and eye.