You don't go to an evening of ballet set to music by Sting with terribly high expectations. The musical choice is a calculated play for that coveted younger audience. Artistic expression, one can safely predict, has taken a back seat to getting backsides in the seats. Yet judged by even less-than-standard standards, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's "A Brand New Day," set to a dozen Sting hits and performed Tuesday at Wolf Trap, was surprisingly lame.
Sting, the still-rocking solo artist and former lead singer-songwriter of the British megagroup the Police, was by far the strongest element of the equation. His plush voice is one of pop music's most distinctive, and listening to it for the better part of the night was a pleasure. Of course, his top releases from his Police days were included -- "Roxanne," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." But the choreography inspired by that luscious voice never matched its power.
The company's fine dancers had a brief chance to perform something meatier in the opening piece on the program, the world premiere of "Concerto Caprice," by Virginia native Susan Shields.
Shields trained at the Washington Ballet before performing with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project. "Concerto Caprice," commissioned by Wolf Trap, is her first choreographic effort apart from works for her students at George Mason University. In it she demonstrates admirable craftsmanship. There are lines and patterns in tidy order, and clean ballet technique spiked with a few unusual embellishments -- just enough to add interest, without a busy and haphazard effect. While a few moments felt trite, there were others that signaled an artful eye was at work.
Shields's musical choice, Vittorio Giannini's dark and often grinding "Concerto Grosso," underpinned the strict symmetry of the choreography. Shields's movement style, however, has a lightness and crispness to it, more happily matched by the design elements than by the music. The stage looked like a vision of spring in hyperdrive, with dancers in raspberry pink against a green backdrop. The effect was fresh and pleasing.
In fact, "Concerto Caprice" looked like a masterpiece compared with "A Brand New Day." At least Shields's piece was a true ballet, in which the dancing enhanced the music -- even elevated it -- and created visual interest. Perhaps Sting's music proved too overwhelming for the two choreographers involved in "A Brand New Day," for neither succeeded in developing movement with much emotional urgency.
Nor can it be said that Sting and the thumping drive of his music are particularly well served by ballet, even loosened-up ballet, danced by lithe bodies in see-through chiffon. This was the wardrobe motif of Kevin O'Day's contribution, "Sting/ING Situations," which constituted the second half of the program. What you remember from this section are the nearly bare buns of the dancers, and the floppy, slouchy style of their dancing. A recurring move had the dancers rolling onto their backs like upended insects.
Toronto-based choreographer Matjash Mrozewski put together the first half, "Lost and Found," with mostly recent Sting songs strung together in something of a narrative arc, and an overly predictable use of the music.
A program note states that "A Brand New Day" has taken the company's "contemporary ballet program another step toward the edge, pushing the envelope yet again." Yet nothing has less "edge" than recycled familiarity. Pushing the envelope involves taking artistic risks, and performing mediocre choreography set to one of the biggest hitmakers in pop history is about as risky as serving ice cream to toddlers. You know they will lap it up, as the audience lapped up the Wolf Trap program. But what, in the end, has been accomplished beyond an empty treat?