To launch the second decade of its existence, the Washington Ballet came out swinging Thursday night at Lisner Auditorium with a program as much of a knockout as any the company has shown us in its first 10 years.
Splendid, spirited, beautifully styled dancing has always been one of the troupe's strengths. The company originally began as a showcase for the gifted alumni of founder-artistic director Mary Day's Washington School of Ballet. Though the troupe eventually opened its doors to young professionals from all over recruited by audition, Day's pupils have remained part of the company core, and Day's standards as an internationally renowned teacher and coach continue to be the fundamental yardstick for company membership.
It's worth noting, in this connection, that of four dancers new to the regular company lineup this season, three were trained by Day, as well as one of the three new apprentices. Two of the regular newcomers -- Patricia Miller and James Canfield -- are actually returnees, having been charter members of the Washington Ballet who left to expand their careers, first with the Joffrey Ballet, where they became a headlining pair, and then with Portland's Pacific Ballet Theatre, which Canfield headed as artistic director for a year. Miller is nursing an injury for the moment and couldn't participate in Thursday night's program; Canfield, who has been named assistant artistic director of the Washington Ballet, figured prominently in two of the evening's three ballets.
All this is prelude to observing that as fine as the Washington Ballet dancers are, they can be made to look only as good as the choreography they have to work with. There's nothing like a program of masterly choreography to bring out the best in dancers, and last night's fare, including works by George Balanchine and Paul Taylor, was proof positive.
All three works were new company acquisitions. Among them was "Moments Remembered" by the Washington Ballet's associate artistic director Choo-San Goh, the amazingly fecund choreographer from Singapore whose creations have been a crucial factor in the company's remarkable ascent within the dance world. "Moments Remembered" was commissioned by Israel's Bat-Dor Dance Company, which gave the work its world premiere in 1985, joining a long list of ballets Goh has made for companies worldwide.
Set to the lush, rhapsodically romantic Third Piano Sonata by Alexander Scriabin, the work calls for three couples attired in Carol Vollet Garner's rose and russet costumes, and illuminated in a shadowy, hallucinatory glow by Beth Newbold's unusually dramatic lighting (one suspects Goh may have had a hand in the design concept). The ballet is a study in embraces, caresses and amorous pursuit and surrender; its movement language embellished with inventive lifts, swoons and spins suggesting erotic intoxication.
Yet though there are a few borderline graphic passages -- a sequence of floor rolls for one couple, for example -- Goh's innate sense of tact never deserts him. In a sense, the ballet is about excess, about romantic overflow -- it ends with Janet Shibata sunk to the floor, clinging to Michael Bjerknes' legs at center stage. But nothing is ever overdone; none of the imagery overstays its welcome. The excesses remain strictly romantic, not formal, and the result is a hauntingly wistful ballet. Besides Shibata and Bjerknes, the other members of the excellent cast were Andrea Dickerson, Jahn Johansen, Elizabeth Guerin and James Canfield.
The evening began with Balanchine's "Square Dance," a vivacious addition to the company's Balanchine repertory, briskly staged by Victoria Simon, who also mounted the revised New York City Ballet production in 1976 (the work was premiered by NYCB in 1957), the one that did away with the original country dance caller and added a superb male solo variation. Set to baroque concerto music by Vivaldi and Corelli, the ballet matches strictly classical step syntax with floor patterns and pairings based on American rustic traditions.
It's charming, tricky and exceedingly difficult to dance, much more so than it appears. Understandably, Thursday night's ebullient cast of seven couples, led by Julie Miles and Daniel Chait, sometimes looked as though they were just making it. Most of the time, however, they seemed very much on top of the piece and keenly attuned to its spirit. Miles was especially splendid in the variation for the women alone; Chait, as crisp in allegro as he was stately in adagio, was terrific from start to finish.
"Esplanade," the dazzling program finale, is the first Taylor piece the Washington Ballet has danced. Created in 1975 to a slightly truncated pair of Bach violin concertos (five of the six original movements) and celebrated for its ingenious deployment of nonacademic, pedestrian movement such as walking, running and skipping, the work was instantly recognized as a modern-dance landmark and has remained a repertory staple for Taylor's own troupe.
It's a feather in the Washington Ballet cap for Taylor to have approved the staging (by former Taylor dancer Ruth Andrian, one of the company's finest); only one other company has shared the privilege. The famous hair-raising and genuinely dangerous spills, falls, tosses and catches of the finale, with dancers flying through the air and often hitting the floor like jet-propelled missiles, is trial enough. But the whole use of body weight, extremes of torsion and sharp, swift directional change by Taylor constitutes a daunting hurdle for ballet-trained dancers, and Taylor's expressive range in "Esplanade" -- from the extroverted jauntiness of the first and third movements, for example, to the anguished emotional gropings of the second -- poses an even more forbidding challenge.
The Washington Ballet did itself proud with this initial performance. It's no insult to the dancers that they didn't match the authority and abandon of the Taylor troupe -- no ballet dancers could. But they did infuse the work with a youthful zest and conviction of their own. Julie Miles was gravely impressive in the second movement in the mysteriously hermaphroditic role made memorable by Bettie De Jong of the original Taylor cast, and Toni Lopez-Gonzalez caught the darting scintillation of the virtuosic running solo in the third. The others, all meriting kudos, were Chait, Danna Cronin, Kelli Martin, Kristina Windom, Laura Desmond, Tomm Burnett and John Goding.