Modern ballet is like a salad bar: It supplies the separate ingredients for what once was served only as a complete offering. But the customers can't mix the staples to suit their tastes. Saturday night, the Hartford Ballet, appearing at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre, presented a work from each of the three major categories of movement convention -- classical dancing, character dancing and miming. Some mixing wouldn't have hurt.
It was in William Whitener's "Gazebo Dances" that one missed the presence of other ingredients the most. To a set of John Corigliano piano pieces, Whitener spins formal ballet patterns with a consistency that becomes monotonous. While there are fast movements and a slow one, the types of steps and the ways they are built into phrases are just not varied enough. Surprise, so important in all theater dance, is aroused only momentarily by a numbers game that Whitener plays: At first, he displays only a few dancers at a time, so when he finally shows all 17 at once, it seems as if he's pulled extra performers out of his sleeves.
The Hartford company is able and even energetic in this classical display piece, though the quality of the movement could have been more refined. It was the two other works on the program that showed these dancers to be capable of nuance.
"Murmurs of the Stream," by company Artistic Director Michael Uthoff, is a suite of folkish dances set to Latin American songs. Such popular devices as circle formations and ribbon waving are juxtaposed with stereotypic motions like the bravado marching of the men and the women's resolute folding of their arms. As a propulsive base, Uthoff uses a modern character dance technique that differentiates between the weight of different steps and the tensions of diverse poses. Despite this and smooth performances by the corps and soloists Christine Lux, Debra Collins, Ted Hershey, John Moody, Victoria Vaslett and Gregory Evans, few of Uthoff's ideas were interesting enough for the dances to go on as long as they did.
Surprise was the main point of "Land's Edge" by three choreographers of the Pilobolus group -- Robby Barnett, Alison Chase and Jonathan Wolken -- and composer Paul Sullivan. The couples they set waltzing against a starry sky turn out to be grotesque figures from a Charles Addams cartoon. In works such as this, explicit pantomime -- long banished from ballet along with the 19th century's witches, willies and gnomes -- is being brought back. There are many deft twists -- screaming turns into laughter, reciprocation into Siamese twinning, a corpse into a love object and then into a lover. Hartford's dancers, especially Hershey as the deformed boy with odd appetites, are good silent actors. But didn't Paul Taylor in "Nightshade" make this sort of charade really dance?