The Miami miracle returned to Wolf Trap Wednesday night -- the Miami City Ballet, that is, looking as scintillating as before and then some, perhaps, in its second Washington area appearance.
It was at Wolf Trap last summer that we got our first inspiriting glimpse of the troupe, confirming widespread advance reports of a youthful company that had attained a remarkable degree of technical and artistic maturity in a very brief span. The troupe of 30 dancers under the artistic direction of founder Edward Villella first took to the stage in 1986; since then it has amassed a working repertory of 50 ballets, an annual budget of $4 million, a hefty performance schedule in major Florida locations and elsewhere, and a voluminous sheaf of admiring notices.
A large share of the credit for the company's development belongs, obviously, to Villella, who brought his own awesome record of accomplishment to bear on the task. Earlier this year he returned to the New York City Ballet for appearances in that company's Jerome Robbins retrospective festival, dancing for the first time since his retirement in 1976 (he's 54) in the hour-long, hauntingly atmospheric "Watermill." His performance was a reminder of what the word "charisma" used to mean before being wrung dry by misapplication and overuse. Not that anyone acquainted with Villella's earlier career would have needed reminding -- he was, beyond argument, one of the greatest interpretive artists and virtuosos American dance has known.
Villella regards as an important part of his many-sided mission in Miami the care and furtherance of the ballets, and balletic style, of George Balanchine, with whom he enjoyed a special artistic relationship as a uniquely favored male protege. The Miami City Ballet, moreover, has not only Villella but also its principal ballet mistress, Elyse Borne -- who spent 13 years as a Balanchine dancer -- to help guarantee the authority of its extensive Balanchine repertory. Of course the Florida troupe is far from the only custodian of the Balanchine heritage; apart from the New York City Ballet, necessarily the reference point for all others, there are many companies worldwide that perform Balanchine works, and many perform them well. Nevertheless, among these the Miami troupe plainly stands to the fore, as a mirror of Villella's profound and rigorous understanding of Balanchine's choreographic language.
The two programs the troupe brought to Wolf Trap this year placed even weightier emphasis on Balanchine than last summer's single bill of fare, including as they did five Balanchine ballets along with two by the company's young resident choreographer, Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros. Wednesday night's threesome consisted entirely of pieces newly acquired by the company in 1990, among them Balanchine's "Raymonda Variations" of 1961, which received its Miami City Ballet premiere on this occasion.
Though not especially deep, it's a corker of a ballet, a genially intricate abstraction in which Balanchine pays clear obeisance to the classical ideals of the 19th century's Marius Petipa, who was his spiritual godfather. Indeed, the choreographic vocabulary is not that far removed from Petipa's, though speeded and spiced up in typically Balanchinian ways. The music is excerpted from Glazunov's "Raymonda" score, but is here used simply as a springboard for formal variations shorn of dramatic implication.
Iliana Lopez and Franklin Gamero were nothing short of excellent as the lead couple, she especially distinguished for her fleet footwork and he for his wonderfully crisp leg beats, but both for their exemplary classical bearing. The demi-soloist variations were also splendidly accounted for, particularly by Natalie Hauser, Dominique Angel and Myrna Kamara. Yet some ultimate dimension seemed lacking. In gestural scale and projection, the performance seemed dwarfed by Wolf Trap's size; the dancing could have done with a magnification of its effects all around, a spaciousness more in keeping with its imperial flavor.
Gamonet's recent "Movilissimanoble" disclosed signs of the flair and craftsmanship we'd seen in last summer's Wolf Trap program, but on the whole appeared at best a qualified success as a symphonic abstraction in a neo-Balanchinian mode. The music is Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Weber," but there may be a hidden pun in Gamonet's title, which, a program note asserts, refers to "shifting or moving in a noble manner." Balanchine himself set the same score as a ballet ("Metamorphoses") in 1952, but Hindemith had composed an earlier score, "Nobilissima Visione," specifically as a ballet for Leonide Massine in 1938.
The Gamonet was none too happily sandwiched between two Balanchine works, both of which it vaguely echoed in separate ways. The four-movement piece starts and ends in a quadrangular formation, with an ensemble of eight women and four men framing a lead couple, who are further flanked by a pair of demi-soloist women. In between there's a lengthy section involving the manipulation of long scarves and Oriental-looking poses, which, like other ornamental quirks and gambits, seemed at odds with the traditionalist context. Though the moment-to-moment action of the ballet had its persuasive moments, the choreographic construction in the large didn't parse, nor did the profusion of motifs come to focus in the light of any unifying scheme. Still, the dancing of Lopez, David Palmer, Sally Ann Isaacks and Eve Lawson was intermittently shown off to flattering advantage.
The evening ended with "Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra," better known as "Rubies" -- it's the middle, "American" movement of Balanchine's three-act "Jewels," to music by Stravinsky. It was also, in its bracing brilliance, maybe the world's first "aerobic" ballet, long before the term became faddish; several of its signature movements are drawn from jogging, jump-roping, pedaling and backpedaling. Once again, in this fiendishly challenging vehicle (which Villella and Patricia McBride helped make famous), the Miami principals and ensemble were exceptionally fine, though Marcia Sussman could have used more wit, Isaacks more icy sexual innuendo and Palmer a more incisive characterization of steps. For all its dazzle, the performance seemed somewhat like a photographic print prematurely removed from the developer emulsion. The displacements of pose, rhythm and alignment that give the ballet its jazzy pungency demand an exaggerated definition that was herein only fitfully approximated. Even so, few are the companies that could do as much justice to this taxing masterpiece.