The Washington debut of the Royal Spanish National Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night was not without its spectacular sides and brilliant passages, but on the whole it was a sizable disappointment.
You couldn't prove this by the audience, which, although it reacted rather tepidly after the lengthy first half, gave the company a vociferous standing ovation at the conclusion of the hour-long "Medea," a bizarre dance version of the Greek myth, which ended the program.
There was plenty to applaud. The dancing was technically expert and handsomely disciplined throughout. The heel work, in particular -- one of the mainstays of Spanish dance -- was exceptionally clear, even and rhythmically precise. The musical accompaniment, by full orchestra, singers and guitarists, was also on a high level. The costuming was lavish and colorful, the staging polished, and the rapport of the company as an ensemble admirable.
Lacking, though, were spontaneity, inner urgency and sufficient dramatic charisma among the solo dancers to sustain the troupe's aspirations. Almost everything on the program looked overproduced, overchoreographed and overrehearsed. The big production numbers, especially, seemed so mechanically soulless that the spirit of improvisatory freedom one associates with Spanish dancing at its most vibrant had no chance to burst forth. And though individual artists demonstrated virtuosity, flair and temperament, no single one of them reached the plateau of intensity and expressive poignancy one looks for in dancers of the highest caliber.
This is a large company, more than 60 dancers and musicians; it is one of two principal dance troupes supported by Spain's Ministry of Culture. The other company -- officially the Ballet del Teatro Lirico Nacional de la Zarzuela, but sometimes also confusingly called the Spanish National Ballet -- is a classical ballet company; just last month, the celebrated Soviet ballerina Maya Plisetskaya was appointed its artistic director (she'll reportedly spend six months yearly in Madrid). The Royal Spanish National Ballet, directed by Jose Antonio, is the preserve for specifically Spanish idioms of dance, including flamenco, but also regional or folk dance, the 18th-century style known as escuela bolera, and contemporary styles based on Spanish traditions and techniques. It was established four years ago as the result of a merger of two smaller troupes, and made its first visit to this country last year at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston.
Antonio, a principal dancer with the company as well as its artistic director, is a 36-year-old veteran of such troupes as the Ballet de Antonio, with which he began appearing in major roles at the age of 14, and the Ballet Nacional de Espanåa, when it was under the leadership of Antonio Gades.
He's an extremely fine dancer, as was particularly evident in "Alborada del Gracioso," an extended solo choreographed by Jose Granero to the popular Ravel score. This turned out to be the evening's most thoroughly satisfying number, both choreographically and as a performance. The dance basis is mainly flamenco, but freely adapted to the expressive requirements of the music. There were sections in which Antonio splayed out rhythms between hand claps, heel work and body slaps. In a moody adagio passage, he shaped his arms and torso into extreme angular configurations that gave wrenching accents to a phrase. The choreography also called for such things as double air turns and multiple pirouettes, which he tossed off with fitting panache.
Alberto Lorca's "Ritmos," which opened the program, aimed for dazzling effect, and with its stage-filling arrays featuring 10 couples dressed in black and white, another three in red and black, and a lone couple in pink and black, it often achieved it. But like so much else on the program, the effect was superficial, achieved at the cost of emotional richness.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the five-part "Flamenco" number, by various choreographers, that ended the program's first half. Here also there was much to stun the eye, including beautifully elaborated, long-trained gowns and lacy shawls for the women, slick lighting effects and bravura foot work. But the sense of impulse given free rein, the ebb and flow of interior fire, the feeling of impromptu drama that should be the crux of the flamenco experience was in too short supply. It flared briefly during the solos by Antonio and by Merche Esmeralda -- a smoldering dancer who does remarkably attenuated backbends -- and during the short soloistic clauses of the final "Bulerias," but not consistently enough to ward off a pervading sense of regimentation.
The "Medea," choreographed by Granero to a simplistic, banal and wildly eclectic score for orchestra and guitars by Manolo Sanlucar, makes a grossly melodramatic hodgepodge out of its subject. The mixture of choreographic and histrionic idioms seemed almost perverse -- modern-day dress for some of the men, highly stylized cloaks and scarves and masks for other characters, flamenco elements cheek by jowl with modern and expressionist dance motifs. Creonte was portrayed as a sort of thug, with six brutish henchmen. Two men depicting Medea's Spirit were clad in hoods, pantaloons and wrist bells, and disported themselves as a cross between sumo wrestlers and medieval executioners. All the cast stamped and glowered and contorted their figures to the hilt. The best thing about the work was the set by Andrea D'Odorico, a sort of Roman ruin with curls of smoke blowing through it, against a rusty-looking backdrop -- it caught some of the tragic aura the music and choreography missed.