Though spirited and high-powered, the Mafata Dance Company, which made its Washington debut at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in the "Dance America" series last night, left an impression more of promise, eagerness and commitment than of ripeness fully attained.
The company, based in New York's South Bronx, was founded in 1980 by Lornar Mafata. The troupe -- 11 dancers took part in last night's program -- has a Washington connection in actress Dina Merrill, who is both a Kennedy Center trustee and a longtime active supporter of New York's Mission Society, under the auspices of which the company came into being. The repertory features standard fusions of modern dance, jazz dance and ballet.
The dancers gave evidence of solid schooling and innate zest. The evening's choreography, however, was of slight distinction, and the performances, in respect to both technique and expressive refinement, seemed more a matter of artistry in the bud than mature development.
The program began and ended with extended ensemble numbers in the nature of company showcases, both of them on the feeble side from a choreographic standpoint. Kazuko Hirabayashi's eclectic "Nowhere but Light," the opener, matched Michael Blair's hodgepodge score with flurries of frenetic stage crossings, entrances and exits, adding up to little more than a profusion of unfocused hyperactivity. The concluding "And the Band Played On," choreographed in a breezy Broadway vein by Kevin Austin Hunt to routine disco music by Earth, Wind and Fire, was more slick in construction but dissipated the effect of its speed and dynamics through monotony of texture.
The rest of the program got better as it went along. Martial Roumain's "Letter to Helen" was a neatly devised mini-drama about the pain of lost love. It was danced with fine conviction by Cornell Ivey and Sheryl Pollard, but hackneyed imagery and Noel Pointer's treacly music rather diluted the impact. Though the choreography seemed ultimately dwarfed by its subject, Al Perryman's "Tell It to the Lord," a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., accompanied by both Lionel Richie songs and tapes of King orations, had an impressive dignity and soulfulness. The nine dancers, led by Ivey in the central role, gave it an apt fervor.
Best of all was Carmen de Lavallade's harmoniously shaped "Allegro," a preening, poetic evocation of exotic bird life sensuously and sensitively performed by Hitomi Yoshimura -- conspicuously the troupe's most polished dancer -- and enhanced both by Alberto Ginastera's music (an excerpt from the Harp Concerto) and the burning red costume designed by Geoffrey Holder.