The big, obvious question with respect to the Washington Ballet at this moment in its history, of course, is what happens to the company in the aftermath of the untimely death of resident choreographer Choo-San Goh last November.
The issue was made to seem all the more poignant last night at Lisner Auditorium, when the troupe gave a powerfully affecting performance of Goh's "In the Glow of the Night" as the conclusion of its newest program. Goh left the world 38 ballets (as carefully tabulated by George Jackson in the current issue of Washington Danceview). Of those, I've seen all but 11, and among them, "Glow" is my personal favorite. Aside from that, by any ranking, it would stand among Goh's finest creations, along with "Fives," "Double Contrasts" and "Unknown Territory," to name a few that leap to instant memory.
The question is too big to be resolved easily or swiftly -- certainly not in a single program, perhaps not even in an entire season. Goh was not only the inspirational creative force for the company for over a decade, but a crucial presence in countless other ways. The twin pillars of the Washington Ballet have been Mary Day -- its founding director, teacher, coach, and in her own eccentric fashion, artistic visionary -- and Goh. Now one of them is gone, and all of us -- Day and her company colleagues, the dancers and the ballet public -- have to find ways to come to terms with the new reality.
Last night's program could be regarded as a reasonably honorable holding action. Since Goh's death, the company has performed its annual round of "Nutcrackers," and fulfilled tour dates in the Far East and domestically, but this program is the first in its regular Lisner series with both James Canfield and Kirk Peterson as recently appointed assistant artistic directors (Day continues as artistic director). Each contributed a new work for the occasion. The two men have several things in common; both have had distinguished careers as dancers and both have strong Washington connections -- Canfield as a former and present leading dancer of the Washington Ballet, and Peterson as a former principal of the National Ballet. Canfield, however -- the younger of the two -- is a relative novice at choreography. Peterson is considerably more experienced.
Peterson's "Ballades" and Canfield's "A Matter of Change" each displayed merits, but both seemed unfulfilled and flawed in separate ways. Neither work precludes the possibility of more memorable future efforts, but the promise is muted.
Peterson chose by far the more conventional course, giving us a predominantly lyrical, neo-romantic piece with piano music by Chopin (three of the "Ballades"), with the men in loose fitting, sequined blouses (costumes by Sandra Woodall). For the most part it flows along prettily and nicely, without establishing much flavor or leaving much trace. There are fairly meaty passages for the six principals (among 13 dancers); one of the ballet's most appealing aspects is the chance it affords us to see more of the energy and long clean lines of dancer Jahn Johansen than in the past.
These Chopin pieces, however -- each is like a sonata movement -- don't lend themselves readily to dance transcription, and often the choreography seems rather arbitrarily related to the music. In the coda of all three, moreover, Peterson fell prey to packing too many steps and phrases into the musical envelope, resulting in a sense of congestion. The division of the second, F Major "Ballade" into two choreographic units -- one for three men, the other a love triangle featuring Julie Miles, John Goding and Johansen -- didn't really parse dramatically, and bringing back all the principals from the earlier two movements in the last looked too formulaic. The final tableaux, almost a parody of "Les Sylphides," seemed to come out of left field.
One has to admire Canfield's daring in "A Matter of Change," even though the payoff may have been disappointing, just as one has to applaud his choice of contemporary, offbeat music, even though it wasn't very good music. At least he has the desire and the guts to depart from the beaten track, and one takes this as a positive sign.
But despite these admirable aspects and a striking opening, the ballet itself falters, and leaves its dramatic hints almost entirely unconsummated. It begins with a silhouetted stage picture involving motionless dancers, a series of ladders, one tipped on end, three upright, and a trio of chairs. Three men are costumed (by David Heuvel) in gaudy tuxedos, and three women in lavish finery, contrasting with a couple -- Goding and Elizabeth Guerin -- in gauzy dance garb. The three men sit in the chairs, strike poses, amble slowly across the stage, and intermittently ascend or descend the ladders. Goding and Guerin have a protracted amorous duet. At one point, for reasons that remain obscure, the stage is set to flickering in strobe light. At the end, Goding dances with a new partner -- Kelli Martin -- while Guerin sits on a ladder. That's one change. The only other perceptible reference to the title was a changing of costume, behind the ladders, by some of the dancers.
What's it all about? You got me. Matters aren't improved either by the thin choreographic content or the spacey, tinkly, mushy score by composer Ray Lynch. The music was taken from his "Deep Breakfast" album, but it never gets beyond orange juice -- it's the sort of vacuous "atmosphere" music you might expect to hear in an airport lounge.
This isn't the place to recount the splendors of "In the Glow of the Night" in detail, but in the context, its originality, structural mastery and emotional intensity seemed all the more telling. As in the past, Julie Miles and Janet Shibata were outstanding in the work's outer movements, but high praise must go as well to the other principals -- Daniel Chait, Johansen, Guerin, Michael Bjerknes and Goding -- and to the whole ensemble.