There are some dance companies you want to like before the first step is taken. The Australian Ballet, which returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House last night after a 14-year hiatus, made it easy to do so.
As visitors from abroad, indeed, from a remote distance, the Aussies merited a warm welcome on the grounds of sheer hospitality. This is, moreover, a company of virtual unknowns for an American audience. The troupe has been completely revamped from the ground up since the arrival of its present artistic director, Maina Gielgud, in 1983. Hence it is like a new kid on the block, trying to show that it can hold its own among the bigger and better known itinerants on the international circuit. The underdog factor thus also came into play.
But such considerations might have seemed extraneous were it not for the appealing spirit that emanates from the dancers. These are artists devoid of airs, who combine a beguiling modesty with an eagerness and commitment that make their every move seem to matter. And as the opening program of a week's engagement demonstrated last night, the company is a strong one in a variety of other respects.
Though "Giselle" -- in a handsome production by Gielgud dating from 1986 -- was the main dish, the evening began with a rather substantial hors d'oeuvre in the form of Serge Lifar's "Suite en blanc," set to music by Edouard Lalo. As a dancer of the Diaghilev period, Lifar was George Balanchine's first Apollo and first Prodigal Son; after Diaghilev's death he led the Paris Opera Ballet over a long period and created many works of his own, little known in this country. "Suite en blanc" is an abstract company showcase that predated Harald Lander's 1948 familiar "Etudes" by half a decade, and is in a somewhat similar vein. Less flashy and unremittingly technical than the Lander, it is especially interesting as an unfamiliar species of neoclassicism quite different from Balanchine's, yet full of arresting and markedly original choreographic touches.
The good impression began with the lushly melodious, vaguely melancholy Lalo overture, sensitively conducted by Ormsby Wilkins. The opening stage picture was breathtaking, with the large ensemble of dancers, in black and white attire, arrayed in classic poses on three levels, a dramatic tableau against a black background -- understandably, the sight alone prompted early applause. Other contributory gratifications included the neo-romantic trio danced by Miranda Coney, Lisa Bolte and Justine Miles; the splendid aerial brio of Roy Wilson and Robert Marshall; the spunky but lyrically effusive solo by Anna De Cardi, perhaps the evening's most interesting dancer (whose promotion to the rank of "senior artist," along with Coney and Bolte, was announced backstage after the performance); and the conspicuously poised, elegant dancing by Lisa Pavane and Greg Horsman in the penultimate solos and duet.
Coming on the heels of the Bolshoi Ballet's "Giselle" at Wolf Trap last week, the Australian company's version would seem to beg comparison, but it's so much a matter of apples and oranges that a detailed match-up would be pointless. Let it be noted, though, that the Australian production decidedly outstrips the Bolshoi's both in the felicities of physical design and in dramatic urgency.
Peter Farmer's quite beautiful settings and costumes -- suggestive of period woodcuts, wonderfully harmonized in hues of brown, russet and ocher, and further enhanced by William Akers's subdued lighting -- go far in establishing an aptly romantic mood. The staging, the realization of the mime passages and the stylish dancing of the corps de ballet all bear witness to the overall intelligence of the production, which is intentionally and successfully traditional but by no means devoid of novel effects.
Fiona Tonkin was a drably disappointing Giselle throughout most of the first act, but came into her own in the second. In the first, she simply lacked the youthful sparkle that alone can make the character's later descent into madness and death sufficiently poignant. A Giselle doesn't have to be young or look young, but she's got to dance young; Tonkin's phlegmatic performance was wide of the mark. Her mad scene, however, was soulfully acted and suddenly gave us a heroine of emotional pith. This was followed up by a second act in which Tonkin was able to compensate for an indifferent technique with qualities particularly suited to Giselle as an unearthly specter -- notably, wraithlike limpidity and artfully shaped poses evocative of the 19th-century lithographs that have given so many of us our ideal notions of the ballet and its protagonist.
The evening's Albrecht, Steven Heathcote, was also far more impressive as the repentant mourner of the second act than he was as the brash seducer of the first, and tossed off some fine bravura passages in the bargain. One of the major triumphs of the performance was Sian Stokes's excellently danced and dramatically fierce Myrtha; with Stokes in the lead, splendid support from Coney and Bolte as her Wili attendants, and a superbly coordinated corps, the whole first part of the second act struck one as exemplary.
Stephen Morgante was the hot-tempered Hilarion, and Elizabeth Toohey and David McAllister were the vivacious couple in the Peasant Pas de Deux. The veteran British musician John Lanchbery, the troupes' principal guest conductor, led the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in a sometimes unruly, sometimes hasty, but often persuasively passionate rendering of Adolphe Adam's music.