It's not easy choosing the highlight of the opening night program of the Kennedy Center's International Ballet Festival. Was it the silvery grace of Danish ballerina Silja Schandorff? American Ballet Theatre's precision-tuned performance of Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free"? Or the exquisite display of Russian divadom from Anastasia Volochkova, whose stunning hourglass figure was squeezed into a lemon-yellow tutu, who was festooned with more glitter than an Olympic figure skater, and who nailed each virtuosic feat in her "Don Quixote" variation without ever dropping her smile?
On Tuesday night, the dancing was uneven, tastefulness was spotty, and the program was almost relentlessly bouncy. It was high on physicality and short on soul. But this first week of the festival, featuring the Royal Danish Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and ABT performing at the Eisenhower Theater through Sunday, is not to be missed. The evening is buoyed by healthy competition; each company is trying to outdo the others with its best dancers and signature choreography.
Does the festival offer a true representation of the performance styles that distinguish these troupes? Not exactly. Take ABT's "Fancy Free": The pinpoint timing and perfect balance of athletic tension and jazzy slouch made this work, created for the company in 1944, the most artistically satisfying of the evening. As the fun-hungry sailors on shore leave, Jose Manuel Carren~o, Carlos Lopez and Joaquin de Luz formed an attractive cast. De Luz's performance, in fact, came as a happy surprise. He is a showy dancer, but is not always as musically or dramatically sensitive as he was in this rigorously executed performance. Elizabeth Gaither, Sandra Brown and Angela Snow were the good-time gals pursued by the sailors; Gaither was especially winning in her duet with Lopez.
But one cannot fairly say that the company as a whole routinely performs at this level. Clearly the dancers thrived on the pressure of following the Danes and the Russians. (And no, it wasn't a prima-donna maneuver by ABT that got "Fancy Free" suddenly switched from first to last on the program; a Kennedy Center spokesman said the Robbins work is contractually bound to be forever a finale, and the playbills were printed before the error was caught.)
Likewise, the Bolshoi fronted some of its strongest technicians in works chosen to impress: Michel Fokine's "Le Spectre de la Rose," a duet from Alexander Gorsky's "La Fille Mal Gardee," Kasian Goleizovsky's solo, "Narcissus," and the "Don Quixote" excerpts. You could recognize the hallmarks of Bolshoi style in the women's steely pointework and solid balances, and in the men's jumping prowess.
However, in its excerpts from August Bournonville's "Napoli," the Royal Danish Ballet did not live up to expectations. The Danish master's light, fluid style seems not to have made the journey from the 19th century to the 21st intact. Presented on a bare stage, the ballet was already at a disadvantage; there was no quaint village setting to lend a context to the celebratory dances that mark the conclusion of Bournonville's most popular work. But more important, the dancers seemed pulled in different directions, striving for swift, springy footwork as well as explosive jumps and turns. But forced bravura at the expense of lyricism was anathema to Bournonville; moreover, the dancers simply couldn't deliver it. Too often, if the feet were delightfully fleet, the arms and upper bodies were stiff from the effort. If the arms were soft and playful, the footwork was muddied. And frequently the men's jumps looked labored.
The exceptions were Thomas Lund, who paired astonishingly high jumps with an easy carriage and plush landings, and the radiant Schandorff. There seemed to be nothing under her feet but music and air, and her whole body -- head, shoulders, arms, waist -- moved to the melody in a seamlessly coordinated response. Her dancing had clockwork accuracy and the clarity of spring water, but the quality that came through most of all was charm.
Charm was not among the Bolshoi's attributes. They were missing a few other things, too, such as the right chair for "Le Spectre de la Rose." Aside from the apricot-yellow backdrop (a curious choice), it was the only bit of decor the company used for this 1911 work, which is all about atmosphere. Yet instead of a gracious period piece, there was a stern-looking contemporary thing more suited to the pages of Metropolitan Home. The Kennedy Center supplied it following a detailed description from the Bolshoi. One wonders: Is this an attempt to update Fokine?
Mercifully, the dancers were a credit to the ballet. Gennady Yanin, substituting for an injured Dmitri Gudanov, tempered his easy jump and drill-bit turns with a pleasing vulnerability -- he is, after all, supposed to embody the spirit of a rose. Nina Kaptsova was suitably soft and love-struck as the young woman whose heady dream brings to life the posy she was given at a ball. Yanin also brought an infectious joy to the "Narcissus" solo, replete with images of sparkling water and innocent self-infatuation.
The one off-note was the pairing of Anastasia Goriacheva and Andrey Bolotin in the duet from "La Fille Mal Gardee." The two had zero rapport and plowed through their variations with little feeling.
The excellent Volochkova more than made up for any lack of sparks among her colleagues. Some ballerinas are beautiful, some are refined and enchanting, but this one has that most unusual quality: sex appeal. Ladies, if you want your husbands to stop complaining about going to the ballet, bring them this week. (She dances every performance.)
Broad-shouldered and tall, with striking features, Volochkova is more Amazon than artist, but her technical strength is undeniable. (Was that a triple lutz thrown in somewhere?) Evgeny Ivanchenko, also tall and brandishing an equally superior air, was the perfect match for her. He is the biggest man I have ever seen to have such a broad, silent and easy jump.
Why did Volochkova wear fairy-princess yellow in a role that calls for blood red? I am told that her red tutu got lost en route from Moscow. Urgent appeals went out to anyone nearby with a tutu to spare, and both ABT and the Washington Ballet offered up alternatives. None was quite right, however, so a Bolshoi corps dancer's costume was altered to fit the star (perhaps this explains the rather heavily applied sparkles), and the corps was dressed in hastily spruced-up practice tutus.
It takes a lot for a ballerina to step onstage in the wrong frock, but Volochkova proved that her will, her heart and her ego are just as strong as her technique.