Of all the forms of dancing one can see on the professional stage, social dance affords probably the most directly vicarious thrills.
It's one thing for a man to imagine himself in Nureyev's shoes, or a woman in Fonteyn's. For most of us, these are no more than mental gambits of wild fantasy. It's quite another thing envisioning ourselves as surrogate Freds and Gingers. Sure, they were great and inimitable, but what they were doing, after all, was just a glamorized version of our high school proms and Saturday night flings (at least for those of us of a certain vintage). In any case, it didn't start out as "art" or even "performance"; it was a stylized take on middle- and upper-class mating rituals in white America between the two world wars.
Perhaps all this is what accounts for the immediacy of appeal in a phenomenon like American Ballroom Theater (ABrT), the scintillating social dance troupe that began a week of performances at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater last night. For all the dancers' technical sophistication, refinement and dexterity, they don't seem separate from us as some kind of transcendent, ideal beings. Their music is popular in every sense, both in style and ubiquity. And the choreography, however intricate and calculated, makes no strenuous intellectual demands or esoteric detours. It's hard not to feel instantly at home with it.
All this ease can be deceptive, because the challenge of transforming dances that began as recreational and participatory activities for laymen into viable theatrical spectacles for professional performers is immense. It's a measure of ABrT's success that after seven years of existence it remains one of a kind, and is going very strong indeed.
The company was last in Washington half a decade ago (playing an SRO week at the Terrace Theater). Since then, the dancers are all new, a handsome contingent of six couples. The founders and artistic directors -- Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau -- are, sad to say, not dancing with the troupe currently; for now, they are occupied as stars of Broadway's "Grand Hotel." In the meantime, too, ABrT's first choreographer, the immensely gifted John Roudis, has passed away, and though the troupe continues to perform the numbers he created for them, a bevy of other choreographers have been tapped for more recent contributions.
These changes have by no means dimmed the troupe's luster. Though deprived of Roudis's special genius, and the unrivaled enchantment of Dulaine and Marceau as a team, the new complement of dancers is splendid, and the repertory now cuts a wider, more variegated swath through the vast untapped potential of social dance in its broadest reach.
The current Kennedy Center program opens with Roudis's charmingly confected "The Rainbow Room," a smoothly elaborated melange of pop classics of the '30s and '40s (e.g., "The Continental," "In the Mood," "Night and Day," "Dancing in the Dark") as a backdrop to the dances of the same era, ranging from the Charleston and the fox trot to the Lindy hop. More than anything else on the program, Roudis's seamless tapestry allowed for, indeed highlighted, distinctly personal flavoring by individual couples, among them the perky Jeff and Donna Shelley, elegant Victor Kanevsky and Dee Quinones, graciously piquant Helmut Salas and Candace Langhoff, and amorously suave Stanley McCalla and Jennifer Ford.
The end of the program -- the second half of "Tango and Waltz," choreographed by former company dancer Gary Pierce -- returned to the atmosphere and manners of the ballroom proper, as couples in long, formal silk gowns and tails spun and whirled in voluptuous arcs.
In between, two numbers effectively evoked different sorts of ambiance and mores. Graciela Daniele's "Presley Pieces" (with the help of associate choreographer Tina Paul) gave us a cartoonish impression of Presley-era country rock, making little, amusing excursions into period characterization (men gyrating their hips while slicking back their hair), and such visual puns as a horizontal gal strummed like a guitar over a man's knee. In its clever lighting (by Jules Fisher, including strobe and silhouette effects), fluid scenography and broad humor, it had a Broadway touch reflective of Daniele's musical comedy experience. In the tango portion of "Tango and Waltz" -- choreographed by Peter DiFalco -- men in black suits and turtlenecks and women in low-cut black cocktail dresses locked limbs and libidos amid swirling smoke and humidly lighted darkness. With its whiplash swivel turns and flicking forelegs -- like snake tongues lashing at invisible prey -- and its steamy sections for three female and then three male couples -- it was the evening's most dramatically flinty component, despite some structural awkwardness. But both "Presley Pieces" and "Tango" were welcome dashes of spice between the blander, if more overtly romantic, opening and closing dances.
The other dancers were William Wayne and Lori Brizzi, and Danny Carter and Gaye Bowidas.