The Washington Ballet presented a diverting, if lightweight, assortment of "firsts" for its second program at the Kennedy Center Opera House Friday night -- the first company performances of George Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations," John Cranko's "Holberg Suite" Pas de Deux, and in an ambitious production, Fernand Nault's hour-long "Carmina Burana," to the familiar score by Carl Orff. Offering two different programs within the week's series is also a departure for the company, and a welcome one that should benefit dancers and audiences alike.
The "Donizetti Variations" makes a fine addition to the troupe's already substantial Balanchine holdings. It's a tribute to Danish master August Bournonville that emphasizes chirping footwork and brilliant beaten steps for the men. The performance put young, Chinese-trained ballerina Yen Chen into a deserved spotlight. She's an altogether winning dancer, with a light, buoyant, effervescent attack in allegro, beautifully filigreed footwork, a graceful line and notably musical phrasing, qualities the Balanchine thoroughly underscored. As her partner, veteran John Goding danced well, though he lacks the technique and crispness to do full justice to the principal male role.
The supporting ensemble of nine danced splendidly, especially the three men -- Runqiao Du, Barry Hughson and Sean Murphy. Still, the performance has a way to go. For one thing, alignment and spacing weren't always as tidy as they need be in this context. For another, all the dancers, including the soloists, are too understated here.
In a review of the company's first program, I spoke of a seeming lack of artistic weight chronic in much of the group's work. This appearance isn't due to any fundamentally artistic shortcoming; it's a matter of theatrical savvy and presentation, attributes made all the more conspicuous in an opera house setting. It's not enough to dance spiritedly and stylishly, as the Washington Ballet dancers do. A ballet such as "Donizetti Variations" needs to be projected unto the furthest reaches of the house, and its dance content set forth with the utmost sense of theatrical authority.
It's matters of this kind that make the difference between a troupe that looks provincial and one that looks worldly. Chen is the closest thing the Washington Ballet now has to a "star," but what keeps her from that distinction has to do not with artistic mettle, but with knowing how to take command of a stage and magnetize an audience. Two new elements in the company situation may bring rapid improvement along these lines -- one is the presence of seasoned virtuoso Kevin McKenzie as permanent guest artist; the other is the troupe's relocation of its local performing activities to the Kennedy Center, which in itself should prove a valuable catalyst.
The Cranko duet made the point even more obvious by way of contrast. McKenzie, though he's anything but a gaudy or ostentatious performer, knows exactly how to put his message across. His "Holberg" ballerina, Lynn Cote, also showed herself to be ahead of most of the company dancers in this respect, most likely because of her three seasons with the Boston Ballet. In any case, the two of them danced, together and separately, with a full measure of sophisticated showmanship, making the most of the opportunities Cranko's suave, knowing and animated choreography provides. It's an attractive, often poetic, piece that should serve well as a display vehicle for other dancers in the company, without making excessive pyrotechnical demands.
As for "Carmina Burana," it earned the troupe a standing ovation at evening's end, which is presumably its reason for being there. It's hard to know what other claim it can make on serious attention. The company, in earlier years, used to perform choreographer James Clouser's version, which was essentially junk, but at least it had some of the faintly scandalous atmosphere that can lend a production some piquancy. Nault's sobersided version, created for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1966, is almost prissy.
True, its length and its many scenes give a lot of dancers a chance to move to the foreground, and its medieval flavor (the song texts are poems by monks and students at a 13th-century monastery) affords an opportunity for scenic extravagance. The music, moreover, has caught public fancy with its tunefulness and catchy rhythms. But the choreography is as thin and superficial as the score, and as murky in intent. Not only was no translation of the poems provided for the audience, but even the individual section titles were left in untranslated Latin, so that the only clues as to dramatic significance were the five major division titles -- like "Springtime" and "In the Tavern."
The choreography, surprisingly, doesn't call for toe shoes, even though the basic style is academic ballet, flavored here and there with mimetic gesture, acrobatics and histrionic posings. But the idea of inexorable fate, as suggested by the framing opening and closing choruses and the huge Fortune Wheel of the set, is hardly explored in any comprehensible manner -- the whole thing has the look of a school pageant, rather. Nowhere is the sense of apocalypse or debauchery conveyed, and the only touch of the grotesque suggested in the texts is the sight of hooded martyrs strung up on poles as part of Mark Morton's unremarkable decor (borrowed, along with the more sightly costumes by Judanna Lynn, from an earlier Atlanta Ballet production).
The dancers Friday night who, despite these drawbacks, managed to capitalize on Nault's tasteful, shrewdly constructed tableaux were, in the main, Chen, McKenzie, Goding, Christopher Doyle, Julie Miles, Elizabeth Menninger and especially Terace Jones, in a propulsively athletic solo. Among the most rewarding aspects of the performance were the excellent musical contributions from the Paul Hill Chorale, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under the direction of Stephen Crout and the outstanding vocal soloists -- soprano Yvette Lewis, tenor Howard Carr and baritone Mark Oswald.