In a classically based world premiere, a newly acquired work by a master and a piece dusted off from its bright past, the Washington Ballet demonstrated it can command attention on the strength of beautiful dancing alone. The program was called "Mood Swings," but there was just one feeling in evidence: confidence.
This company, like many of its size, has had moments of being caught up in the popular trend that anything goes, and the rougher and more extreme the better. So at Thursday's opening at the Eisenhower Theater, it was refreshing to watch three well-constructed ballets with zero schlock value -- George Balanchine's "Rubies," Choo San Goh's "Unknown Territory" and Trey McIntyre's new "The Reassuring Effects of Form and Poetry." (Though it was originally part of the bill, Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" was cut because of the program's length, a company spokeswoman said.)
The title of McIntyre's work is a mouthful, but don't let that put you off. McIntyre is a smart, resourceful choreographer with considerable imagination. If this ballet doesn't quite achieve the poetic, it comes admirably close. McIntyre isn't cynical about ballet. He doesn't strip it, slap it around or tear it apart, like so many young choreographers do. This piece isn't acrobatic, sexy or drenched in ennui. It celebrates the classical form. McIntyre, in fact, is so bold as to revel in beauty: The four couples wear rich shades of purple, rose and blue, and the women's tiered skirts resemble glamorously truncated bustles. There is a lyricism and lightness to the movement, a cordiality among the dancers. It feels like spring.
The ballet reflects the colors and moods in Dvorak's regal "Serenade for Strings," but the dancers' swift contemporary drive gives the work a bit of welcome tension. Laura Urgelles dances with two men, J. Cortney Palomo and Richard Krocil. The main theme is dependence, but it's also filled with thrilling abandon: They swoosh her through the air, or she falls against them, molding herself to their arms, her limbs like silk. Erin Mahoney and Jonathan Jordan are on a more equal footing; she sits on him, he sits on her, and their partnership is one of easy balance. (The powerful Mahoney, however, is miscast in this work -- she is a dancer of many strengths, but effortless lyricism is not one of them.) With a string of turns like a scattering of light waves, Brianne Bland ushers in a new tone, one of sunniness and warmth, as opposed to brash exuberance. Michele Jimenez and Jared Nelson swoon up their duet a bit heavily, but Jordan, a remarkably polished, clean dancer, lets his stage-skimming solo roll along unforced.
The ballet ends, however, on a bizarre note, with the men grabbing their beaming partners by one arm and dragging them along the floor and into the wings -- where, this image leads one to imagine, the ladies are tossed into a heap like rolled-up rugs. This is reassuring? Still, though some moments -- like the ending -- could be rethought, "The Reassuring Effects of Form and Poetry" is a work of great spirit.
Spirit, in fact, governed the evening. "Rubies," the middle section of Balanchine's plotless full-length ballet "Jewels," is becoming increasingly popular as an excerpt. With its jazz-inflected Stravinsky score and Balanchine's emphatically unhinged approach to classical technique, it is a guaranteed jawdropper, even 36 years after its creation. The dancers took to the style well, but they will undoubtedly perform the work better next year; they couldn't quite deliver the stretched-out shapes with the requisite showgirl insouciance. In the leading ballerina role, Bland was the big surprise: steel-strong, yet pliant as wire, knowing, playful, a bit of a vixen.
"Unknown Territory" was the last ballet Goh created. The Washington Ballet's former associate artistic director died a year later, in 1987. There's nothing morbid or sentimental about this work, though; in fact, there's little feeling of any kind, which is its chief drawback. Depicting a stylized wedding in some surreal land, it is a work of high decorative impact. The curved and sculpted shapes achieve an effect like calligraphy. This is not one of Goh's best works, but it makes a satisfying visual statement.
Even with its imperfections, this program presented the troupe as a true ballet company. One hopes to see it continue on this course.
Performances continue through tomorrow.