American Ballet Theatre was in grand form last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, in a program calling for large doses of grandeur of various sorts and flavors.
It was, in its way, an entirely characteristic ABT program: "Birthday Offering," a masterpiece by Frederick Ashton modeled on 19th-century classicism at its zenith, acquired for ABT by Mikhail Baryshnikov before his abrupt departure from the troupe; a revival of Agnes de Mille's "Fall River Legend," a gem of psychodramatic Americana that has remained, since its 1948 premiere, one of the company's signature pieces; and Jiri Kylian's 1978 "Sinfonietta," the troupe's newest repertory addition, acquired at the invitation of ABT Director Jane Hermann and the first Kylian ballet the company has attempted.
"Sinfonietta" came last on the program, a natural positioning not only by virtue of its exultant mood and physical brilliance, but also because it's an applause machine if ever there was one. Kylian, the 42-year-old Prague-born artistic director of the Netherlands Dance Theatre, made his first big splash in this country with this work, and its popularity has proven very durable.
It comes on strong, especially with live musical performance of its score, Leos Janacek's music of the same title. The edges of the Opera House stage last night were lined with 11 standing trumpeters, blaring forth the rhythmically catchy fanfarade that begins the piece. The curtain then rose on designer Walter Nobbe's blue-green, idyllically stylized pastoral landscape, and the cascades of tumultuous leaps that are among the choreographer's chief devices commenced. The dancing has a folklike veneer, though few actual folk steps are employed, and the folkish elements are fused with ingredients from ballet (though the women aren't on point), modern dance and acrobatics in the idiosyncratic style Kylian has forged for himself. Also among its traits are flurries of swift, multidirectional stage crossings, self-intersecting arcs, and women pulled along the floor and then hoisted into spectacular traveling or spinning lifts.
It's dazzling stuff, and there's no doubt that Kylian, in this and other works, has used his talent to fashion a distinctly personal choreographic style. I remember the first time I saw "Sinfonietta" and how it took my breath away, so I can fully understand and empathize with the ovation from last night's audience. But the work doesn't wear too well over time; beneath the surface zip, the choreography reduces to reiterated mannerisms. By now, "Sinfonietta" looks to me like a middle-European version of Gerald Arpino's flower-child "Trinity," replete with simplistic allusions to nature, youthful exuberance and a hollow sanctimony typified by the final apocalyptic march to the rear with slowly rising arms.
The piece really doesn't have any individualized roles, but it places heavy demands on the technique and stamina of its large cast. Last night's ABT ensemble, including many of the company's leading principals and soloists, seemed altogether at home with the Kylian idiom, and played up its extroverted energy for all they were worth.
"Birthday Offering," -- which opened the program -- has by contrast nothing but individualized roles. Created in 1956 as a tribute to the Royal Ballet and its founder, Ninette de Valois, it was a glittering neoclassic showcase for the Royal's reigning ballerinas -- Margot Fonteyn, Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova and others. Between opening and closing ensembles featuring the cast's seven ballerinas and their partners, the ballet parades each of the seven women in separate variations, plus a mazurka for the men and a pas de deux for the lead pair. The ingenuities -- and difficulties -- of the choreography are numberless, and it is an immensely high tribute to today's ABT that its dancers pass muster so well in this context. Susan Jaffe, as the lead ballerina last night, was a model of classical poise and refinement, and partner Jeremy Collins -- one of the troupe's swiftly maturing classicists -- matched her splendidly. Cheryl Yeager was especially beguiling in the first variation; the other women, all fine, were Christina Fagundes, Julie Kent, Leslie Browne, Alessandra Ferri and Christine Dunham.
"Fall River Legend" also received a distinguished performance, as led by Cynthia Gregory as the deeply tormented Accused (the Lizzie Borden role), Georgina Parkinson as her ironhearted Stepmother, and Victor Barbee as the sympathetic Pastor. The ballet exhibits a degree of artistic sure-handedness, dramatic insight, gestic force and formal clarity that gives it the status, if not the feel, of classicism. Then too, there's the awesomely taut marriage of dance, music (by Morton Gould), lighting (by Thomas Skelton), costumes (by Miles White) and one of ballet's most telling sets ever (by ABT co-director Oliver Smith).
Adding to the impact last night of Gregory's soul-wracked portrayal, Parkinson's effectively understated cruelty and Barbee's diffident warmth were the touching account of the Child by Ashley Tuttle, Ethan Brown's somber Father, Christine Dunham's vulnerable Mother, and Careen Hobart and John Summers as the amatory lead couple in the "Nocturne." Seeing the ballet back in repertory again, moreover, was a reminder of how powerfully de Mille's choreographic imagination was influenced -- to its great benefit -- by the strategies and techniques of filmmaking, a not unexpected attribute given her lineage.