Catherine Filene Shouse gave her family farm to the nation for the establishment of Wolf Trap Farm Park, and the Joffrey Ballet danced at its opening 28 years ago. Tuesday night the company returned the favor with a world premiere dedicated to Shouse's memory.
Called "Kay's Lilt," the work was choreographed by Randy Duncan, who comes from the troupe's home city of Chicago. For several years he was artistic director of Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, a popular modern dance ensemble, and his new work bears the hallmarks of that company's style in its accessibility and high energy.
"Kay's Lilt," set to an Asian-influenced score by Ira Antelis and Elton John's pop tune "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," had a distinctly contemporary feel. There was much emphasis on ecstatically twisting torsos and bodies slowly lowering to the floor (bringing choreographer Alvin Ailey to mind), as well as a strong African dance influence in its stamping, circling patterns. It had a casual air entirely appropriate for an informal outdoor venue such as Wolf Trap. And the dancers, dressed in billowing white trousers, with the women in white midriff-baring tops, performed with conviction and verve.
But beyond that, there was little of interest. The choreography was rife with redundancies--swoopy lifts, sharply accented ensemble passages--and easy appeal. But it offered nothing of substance, no subtlety, no genuine feeling other than a mirroring of the emotional outpouring in John's lyrics, and only a predictable use of the music at that.
These reservations could also be made for the rest of the program, which was devoted to the choreography of company director Gerald Arpino. The Joffrey has always had a populist bent--this is the group that brought us "Billboards," the rock ballet set to music by the artist we used to call Prince--but it has in the past been leavened with works of some import, including revivals of ballets by such masters as Vaslav Nijinsky and Leonide Massine. You could usually count on something to sink your teeth into. Tuesday's program was, pure and simple, a bouquet of crowd-pleasers.
That said, "Light Rain," which closed the program, was an interesting counterpoint to "Kay's Lilt." It makes lavish use of the exotic music hinted at in the first piece, and employs a measure of choreographic invention missing in Duncan's work. It is an ode to the inner thigh, an essay on how many ways and to what eye-popping extent the legs can be split. Arpino keeps the dancers pulsing to the steady beat (by Douglas Adams and Russ Gauthier), heating them to a boil in parts. The piece even scared a rabbit out of the Filene Center bushes.
"Viva Vivaldi" opened the program with an attempt to be high-toned that only looked confused. Why was a Spanish motif--tiered lacy skirts, hair combs and loud finger snapping--set to music of a baroque composer from Italy? The dance had a spare, formal quality but ultimately came off as a series of classroom exercises, albeit brightly performed.
Borrowing a page from Nijinsky's "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," "Sea Shadow" was a long, slow courtship under murky blue lighting between a bare-chested man and a woman with long blond hair (Davis Robertson and Maia Wilkins). This was a tribute to the fabulousness of dancers--how flexible they are! How fit! Ho-hum.
A final note: While the written program contained plenty of background on Shouse, Arpino and company founder Robert Joffrey, there was no biographical information on Duncan, though his contribution to the evening's main event certainly warranted it. This oversight does a disservice to both the choreographer and the audience.
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) Lacy skirts, finger-snapping and other Spanish motifs of "Viva Vivaldi" accented music by the Italian baroque composer.
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) At Wolf Trap, the Joffrey Ballet emphasized fitness and flexibility.