The Washington Ballet'simpressive appearance at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, in an all Choo-San Goh program, was a milestone in more ways than one. It marked not only the start of a new season, but the first such season in which the company will present all three of its annual program series at the center. Perhaps even more importantly, this first, fall series -- in the Opera House (the winter and spring series will take place in the Eisenhower and Terrace theaters) -- signifies the company's induction into the Kennedy Center's own ballet subscription series for the first time.
The troupe -- founded in its present, professional form in 1976 by artistic director Mary Day -- has been accorded this prestigious sign of recognition not out of altruism or a let's-be-nice-to-the-locals impulse, but because it has earned its spurs honestly in a fiercely competitive field. It has a record of steadily burgeoning achievement, and it has shown that it can build and gratify an audience at home, regionally and abroad (in less than two weeks, the company departs for a 10-day tour of the Soviet Union, its first). The list of members, current and past, who have been competition prize winners, and the remarkable roster of alumni now prominent in major troupes elsewhere is powerful testimony to the company's success as an incubator of dance talent. Moreover, in recent seasons, the artistic and managerial staff has been solidified, the company programs are now all performed with live accompaniment, and the repertory has been buttressed with the addition of masterworks by Balanchine, Paul Taylor and Bronislava Nijinska (a ballet by Antony Tudor will be added later this season).
Yet another sign of the company having reached a new plateau in its careful evolution is the fact that this season the only new dancers are all former apprentices who have been promoted to full membership. And though the troupe is losing one of its finest ballerinas, Janet Shibata (though she dances in this series as a guest artist), to a freelance career in Chicago, it has gained the distinguished Day protege and American Ballet Theatre principal Kevin McKenzie as a permanent guest artist.
Under all these circumstances nothing could have been more fitting as a season inaugural than a program of ballets by Choo-San Goh, the Singapore-born choreographer who created 14 ballets for the troupe and whose untimely death at 39 three years ago cut short a brilliant career. It was Goh, both through his works and his relationship with the dancers, who supplied the creative ferment to put the Washington Ballet on the map, and his legacy rightly remains the mainstay of the company repertory. The company customarily performs at least one Goh ballet on each of its programs; an all-Goh sampler seemed particularly apposite for this occasion.
The selection fell on three of Goh's strongest creations, and an excerpt from a fourth: "Double Contrasts," to music by Poulenc (1978); "In the Glow of the Night," with a score by Bohuslav Martinu (1982); "Fives," to music by Ernest Bloch (1978); and a Pas de Deux from "Momentum," music by Prokofiev (1979). All were staged by company ballerina Julie Miles, who was Goh's assistant, with rehearsal support from longtime company members John Goding and Lynn Cote.
If the performances, with the magnificent exception of "Glow," were something of a letdown measured against the memory of past accountings, part of the reason may simply have been first-night flukishness. In addition, however, the present complement of dancers, despite its generally splendid level of technical facility and stylistic refinement, looks rather callow in matters of projection, and lacks -- apart from the special cases of McKenzie and Shibata -- artistic weight a good deal of the time. Miles, Cote and one or two others sometimes transcend this rule; some others give promise of doing so on the presumption of continued growth, but by and large this seems a troupe en route to artistic maturity, rather than one that has arrived at the goal.
The performance of "Double Contrasts" seemed so oddly muffled it was almost as if it were being danced under water. Only hints of the choreography's glamorous glitter and sexy, brittle charm surfaced here and there, mainly in the interchange between the leading couples, Anita Pacylowski and Goding, and Beth Bartholomew and Runqiao Du. The "Momentum" duet was very suavely danced by Francoise Thouveny and Christopher Doyle, but the sense of amorous rapture the piece can generate (it won Goh the choreography prize at the Varna Competition in 1983) never really materialized. "Fives," too -- which can be and has often been electrifying in past Washington Ballet concerts -- seldom lived up to the implicit drama and dynamism of its designs.
Only "In the Glow of the Night" received a performance commensurate with its content. Achingly beautiful, profoundly poetic in conception and unremittingly sustained in inspiration, this most sublime of Goh's ballets brought together in one work every facet of his talent in an ideal fusion. In it, his vivid deployment of arms, hands, elbows, fingers, heads and necks in a poetry of gesture becomes a language of its own. His sensitivity to the shape, rhythm and emotional temperature of music is at its keenest. His gift for indelible imagery finds a wonderful outlet in the ballet's depiction of phases of the night, extrapolated into metaphors of nocturnal fantasy and feeling. And the work profits also from a magical affinity between the choreography, and the decor and lighting that Carol Vollet-Garner and Tony Tucci devised to go with it. All these aspects were underscored by a deeply committed cast that included Miles, Du and Doyle in the first movement; Cote and McKenzie in the second; and Shibata and Goding in the last.