"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" is a good working precept for a dance company intent on maintaining a strong creative profile. At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater last night the Washington Ballet sallied forth with two new works out of three. Of the two, one -- "Prelude to Autumn" by American-born Ray Barra -- was a world premiere, and the other -- "Before Nightfall" by Dutch choreographer Nils Christe -- was a company premiere.
However mixed the results, it's heartening to see the troupe forging ahead this way in its quest for viable new work, without -- may it be noted -- kowtowing to any dictates about what's currently fashionable.
Whatever else might be said of the new additions to the repertory, moreover, both displayed the dancers to advantage, underscoring their stylistic versatility, their sense of full commitment to unfamiliar idioms, and the magnetism and finesse of outstanding individuals among them.
The company right now appears to fall into several layers: At the top, there's "permanent guest artist" Kevin McKenzie, setting a superb example of mature, thoughtful artistry; then there are several seasoned company veterans, also pacesetters in their way, including Julie Miles, John Goding and Lynn Cote; emerging ever more clearly are a pair of exceptionally gifted youngsters, both natives of Shanghai -- Yan Chen and Runqiao Du; and among the others are several of conspicuous promise, including Beth Bartholomew, Sean Murphy and Loreen Marcinkowski. As for the company as a whole, it was in fine fettle for last night's program.
The evening's third work -- actually by far its strongest -- was Choo-San Goh's "Variations Serieuses," created for the company in 1977, less than a year after he became resident choreographer. All three works are mood pieces, each with a temporal or seasonal flavoring. "Variations Serieuses" is quite autumnal, in its music, its costuming and lighting, and its choreography as well. If Barra's new ballet alludes to the same season, Christe's -- commissioned by Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet half a decade ago -- is on the wintry side, taking its cue from music, by Bohuslav Martinu, composed on the eve of World War II and rife with dire foreboding.
The strength of Goh's ballet lies in its poetic unity, its developmental logic and an exquisite musicality that was one of the late choreographer's defining traits. Another factor is Goh's trenchant imagery; the piece etches itself an emotional signature with its very first motif -- a steeply slanted forward stance, with arms pulled back, suggesting a heading into a stiff wind. The ballet is full of endearing touches, such as the slow fugal variation danced first by four women, and then a second time by the same four plus four men, lending the music a whole new emotional inflection. The performance was eloquent, though pianist Glenn Sales's too languid tempos bogged the movement down here and there.
"Prelude to Autumn" inevitably evokes thoughts of Antony Tudor's 1975 "The Leaves Are Fading," at least for those familiar with that masterwork. Barra, like Tudor, has picked music by Dvorak (the E minor Piano Trio, Op. 90), and the decor and costumes, by Parmalee Welles Tolkan, are also somewhat reminiscent of the earlier piece. Choreographically, Barra owes more here perhaps to John Cranko (one of his mentors; in his dance career Barra was Cranko's first Romeo and first Onegin) than Tudor, but the intent -- a kind of lush, fey romanticism -- is very similar.
The trouble is that where Tudor, genius that he was, came up with a vision of ecstatic wistfulness, Barra, despite evident skills of various sorts, ends up with a marshmallow. His endlessly swirling lifts, drifting poses and reiterated stage crossings aren't merely cloying, they also don't seem to build to any cumulative effect -- they're not even especially autumnal. The redeeming features of the ballet are passages especially grateful in design for particular dancers -- an extended, ardent solo for Du, and a lyrical duet for Chen and Goding.
"Before Nightfall," by contrast, is guided by a forceful, overall structure, and displays quite a bit of inventive partnering. Despite its ominous atmosphere, frequent angularity and harsh dynamics, it's scarcely less romantic than the other two works in underlying feeling. The opening is stark -- a silent tableau of the six men and women, all in black, the men's chests bared, amid designer Keso Dekker's dark thicket of black-white slashes covering the set's side panels and backdrop. Once the muscular, propulsive Martinu score gets going, the choreography falls into three parts, each featuring one of the three principal couples -- Chen and Murphy in the coolly incisive first part; Bartholomew and Goding in the poignantly anguished second; and Cote and McKenzie in the increasingly febrile third.
In the end, all the dancers sink to the floor in poses of expiration, as the light fades; as the curtain falls, McKenzie alone raises his head, like a startled deer. The ballet makes its points too often and sometimes too overbearingly, but it's a splendid challenge for the dancers, and undeniably potent in impact.