THE HISTORY of the Washington Ballet over the past five years has been a crescendo of growth and achievement. Now the summation of this period of ferment is about to reveal itself in the company's "Golden Gala" at Lisner Auditorium Friday evening.
The grandiloquence of the evening's label is justified by the nature and promise of the event. The centerpiece will be the first public performance of "Configurations," the new ballet by WB assistant artistic director and resident choreographer Choo San Goh, commissioned by Mikhail Baryshnikov and to be performed by him along with 13 of his ABT colleagues. Dancing opposite Baryshnikov in the new work, which has Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto as its score, will be ABT principal Marianna Tcherkassky, who was trained by Mary Day, founder-director of the Washington Ballet.
Besides Tcherkassky, two other notable WB alumni will figure in the gala program. Actress Shirley MacLaine, who also studied with Day, will host the evening. Kevin McKenzie, another WB grad who is now at ABT principal, will be a partner to Moscow gold medalist Amanda McKerrow, the company's 17-year-old celebrity, in Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." And in the world preemiere of "Echoes" by former ABT dancer John Meehan, McKerrow will dance with Simon Dow, her Moscow partner. Winding up the evening will be Goh's "Fives," the stunningly propulsive work which three years ago led Baryshnikov to collaborate with the Singapore-born choreographer.
Before and after the gala, the company will launch its regular '81-'82 series with a Lisner program that features the world premiere of Gray Veredon's "Facets" and introduces an attractive ticket-pricing scheme and other innovations.
Much of the Washington Ballet's new-found stttrength over the past half decade has hinged upon the creative strides made by Goh, 33, who arrived in Washington in 1976. For Goh, the whole experience of composing the work has been both exhilarating and educational.
"It's definitely very different working with so large a company as ABT," Goh said last week. "ABT is an institution, a giant. For one thing, one has to hand in rehearsal schedules a week in advance, which can be very difficult when you're making something new and have no idea where you'll be or whom you'll need seven days later. If you misjudge a given week, that's it -- you can't yank a dancer out of a tightly calculated schedule that has as many as 15 different ballets being rehearsed in a day. A few times, I simply had to stall for a while; but it was really good for me to have to work this way and learn how to cope with it."
The pressure on Goh was exacerbated by surrounding ABT activities -- the mounting of new ballets and restagings of works by Kenneth MacMillan, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and Lynn Taylor-Corbett, in addition to the reehearsal of repertory staples.
Working with Baryshnikov was fraught with both trepidation and thrills. "This was the first time I'd worked with a star of his caliber. I was timid at first but once I got over the initial barrier it felt fine; it began to be fun. At the same time it was a challenge. He's got such extraordinary facility that you don't want to waste it, but also, you want to do what's best for your ballet -- certainly it would be a mistake to throw in some fireworks out of context just to make sure he's shown off well.
"He seemed most interested in the parts of the choreography that are the least balletic, parts involving loose body movement, for example. He made some suggestions of his own, and when I felt they didn't interfere with the look I was after, I took them. He picked things up very quickly, of course, and you couldn't help noticing how extremely musical he is."
Did Baryshnikov give any sign of tension between his dual roles as company director and principal dancer? "Not at all," Goh says. "When he's rehearsing, he's part of the dancing team. Once in a rare while he'd whistle or something to get the others' attention, but this was the only hint; otherwise he was just one of the dancers. He was also always very prompt at rehearsal -- I don't know how he does it; some days he rehearsed for six hours at a stretch. He's in the new MacMillan and in the Cunningham and lots of repertory as well, aside from having all kinds of company business to worry about, and sometimes you could see he was exhausted, but he was always right there."
The making of "Configurations," which took three weeks to complete and is still in rehearsal, has been chosen as the subject of a 90-minute television special on the creative process by London Weekend TV. The program, to be aired in England next year, will survey the endeavor from early rehearsals to finished performance, with interviews with Goh, Baryshnikov and others. Some footage will be shot here during the Washington gala, including a backstage talk with MacLaine.
The character of "Configurations," as the title suggests, tends toward pure, non-narrative dance, and Goh confirms that even in his own mind there is no implicit dramatic subtext, as there is in some of his other "abstract" ballets. "This is my most plotless ballet, if one can say such a thing," he declares. "Not in style, but in concept, I think it is the closet to the Balanchine idiom I've come."
For Goh, the composing of "Configurations" for Baryshnikov means his first entry into the repertory of one of the world's major companies. Still to come for him this year are another new ballet for the Washington troupe, and performances of his work, new and old, by the Alvin Ailey company, the Dallas Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Australian Ballet and others.
As for the Washington Ballet, the inevitable attrition in dancers has taken its toll -- the gifted Hilary Canary has joined ABT, and a number of other WB stalwarts have moved on. On the other hand, a new generation of Mary Day pupils is emerging. The exceptionally promising Alejandra Bronfman, an apprentice last year, becomes a regular company member now, and nine young apprentices from the WB school will augment the senior troupe. Of the 14 company dancers at the start of this season, six will be new, from such backgrounds as the Dutch National Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Former WB dancer Brian Jameson returns from the Feld Ballet. Also among the newcomers will be Janet Shibata, a former distinguished soloist with ABT.
Among the things the Washington Ballet's new season holds in store are: the premiere by Veredon, a New Zealander who's become one of today's most sought-after young choreographers; a planned staging of "Sylvia," with its scrumptious Delibes score; a new Goh ballet plus fresh performances of some of his sturdiest earlier creations; a slew of new pas de deux; a much expanded touring schedule; a large number of home programs, with a general admission policy offering tickets as low as $1; and a return engagement, next spring, at Brooklyn College.
Recent times have been heavy with landmark occurrences for the company -- an award-winning Channel 9 special, the Jacob's Pillow debut, a first appearance in New Ork City, McKerrow's Russian coup, a $100,000 Arts Endowment challenge grant, Goh's international exposure. The burning question for the future is, once you've come up with a Moscow gold medal and a partnering award, a resident choreographer who's obliged to turn down a request from Rudolf Nureyev for a new ballet, and a "Golden Gala" that has the company sharing the stage with Baryshnikov, what do you do for an encore? Sustaining this momentum and topping these marks will be all the challenge a still modestly scaled ballet company could ask for.