Applause, cheers and whoops of adulation from an irrepressibly enthusiastic crowd greeted the dancers of the newly reconstituted Capitol Ballet Company at the University of the District of Columbia last night. The acclaim was well earned. The evening's dancing and choreography held promise of a bright new era for a troupe that has had a distinguished past and has played a unique part in the culture of Washington and indeed the nation.
The Capitol Ballet, which suspended operation in 1983 under the pressure of economics, was founded in 1961 by Doris Jones and Claire Haywood (who died in 1978 at 62). Jones still recalls the period in her Boston youth when she had to enter her ballet lessons through the back door lest the teacher's white clientele take offense. It was precisely to ensure that younger generations would never have to contend with such indignities that she and Haywood established their school (in 1941) and company.
Because there are still so few windows of opportunity for black youngsters who aspire to the world of classical ballet, and because the Capitol was one of the first and best, its return is an event of no small artistic moment. The need is as great as before. And Jones' track record -- as attested to by such notable alumni as Chita Rivera, Hinton Battle and Louis Johnson, among many others -- is its own validation.
To assist her with the restoration, Jones has enlisted the help of eminent choreographer Billy Wilson as the company's guest artistic director, who not only contributed three of the debut program's five works, but also helped recruit and rehearse the dancers and stage the performance. The new company has two seasoned artists -- longtime Capitol Ballet prima Sandra Fortune-Green and former Ailey dancer Nathaniel Orr (both have also been members of the Washington Ballet), as well as some experienced young dancers (Sabine LaBonne, Otis Daye and Tammy Hurt), two talented tyros (Kimberly Dillard and Don Bellamy) and six apprentices. Though the evening's dancing had its share of rough spots along technical and stylistic lines, there was more than enough spirit and flash to suggest a rewarding future.
The inaugural program was a winner, too. Though it contained no choreographic blockbusters, the level of craftsmanship was high throughout and the contrasts in themes and idioms unusually effective.
Orr's "Undeniably Bach" used a straightforward neo-classical approach to pleasing effect in a modestly scaled setting of a three-movement Bach concerto, the high point being the lyrical dalliance of the middle movement, featuring Fortune-Green, Bellamy and Daye. Wilson's "Faun," to Debussy, was a rather remarkable gloss on balletic tradition -- it drew the first of the evening's several unbuttoned ovations -- paying homage simultaneously to Nijinsky and Jerome Robbins in both its dramatic imagery and implication. Wilson has given the erotic interlude a veneer of his own, however, with the help of such elements as spectacular acrobatics for Orr, and for LaBonne, an impassioned shuddering of leg in midlift.
In "Rosa," accompanied by the singing of Roberta Flack, Wilson has fashioned a stylized, Aileyesque dramatization of Rosa Parks' heroic civil rights gambit. At the end of the piece, the taking of an empty seat next to a white passenger, by Hurt in the role of Parks, becomes a moving act of defiance, resolution and spiritual affirmation.
For old times' sake, so to speak, three veterans of the old company -- Treanna Reid-Alexander, Robyn Nash and Rodney Green -- performed Jones' wonderfully flavorsome and inventive tap number, "Bach Vibrations," created in 1973 and a Capitol classic ever since. The program concluded with an ambitious work-in-progress, "Ginastera," a five-movement opus choreographed by Wilson to piano music by the Argentine composer and shrewdly fusing balletic and flamenco motifs -- like the program as a whole, a promising start.