AMERICAN Ballet Theatre, best known for its glittery productions of story ballets and its star performers, opens its two-week run here with a series of programs that highlight a more cerebral and introspective side of the company.
ABT has had the good sense to acquire a pair of riveting works by two masters of 20th-century dance, Paul Taylor and George Balanchine. Taylor's "Sunset" and Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," both to be performed this weekend, could not be more different, and yet each presents the troupe with new challenges and viewpoints.
"Sunset," a poignant work for four women and five men, depicts an interlude of frolic, longing and melancholy played out just before a group of soldiers goes off to war. Set to the music of Edward Elgar plus a recording of loons crying mournfully, and danced before Alex Katz's stylized panels and railings, the piece requires a particular weightiness and sculptural clarity that the ABT dancers have not yet mastered. What they do have is swiftness and buoyancy, and a dramatic flair that should please the choreographer.
Anyone who has seen the New York City Ballet perform "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" will have a slight problem adjusting to ABT's rendition of this astringent, difficult ballet. The rapid-fire changes of focus and direction, studied contortion of body parts and odd gestures are part and parcel of the NYCB/Balanchine lexicon; for the ABT dancers, it's a new suit of clothes cut from familiar fabrics. The ballet doesn't look natural to their bodies, but somehow this lends a fascinating twist to an already mesmerizing dance.
Rounding out the weekend are performances of Erik Bruhn's staging of Bournonville's story ballet "La Sylphide," the classroom ballet "Etudes" and a revival of Antony Tudor's searingly psychological "Pillar of Fire."
AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE -- Through June 28 at Kennedy Center Opera House.