Times Music/Dance Critic

Martine van Hamel, the grandiose and sometimes oddly undervalued ballerina of American Ballet Theatre, calls her chamber ensemble the New Amsterdam Ballet.

What's in the name? Nothing except an evasive historical reference to Manhattan.

What's in the ensemble? Considerable talent, halting adventure and a certain degree of stylistic confusion.

Friday night, Van Hamel & Co. officially inaugurated the new Dance Park series at the 1,200-seat John Anson Ford Theater. Valets parked the cars. The honorary committee boasted such names as Cyd Charisse, Lesley Ann Warren, George de la Pena, Robert Joffrey, Gerald Arpino and Alexander Godunov. Antiquated hot dogs sold for $2. There were speeches, proclamations, dedications, celebrations, and, with the top ticket fetching $75, quite a lot of empty seats.

Champagne flowed after the last dancer took the last bow. But in a sense it had just been another opening, another show. After all, four similar--if slightly less pretentious--events already had taken place at the same rustic locale, under the same ambitious auspices in recent weeks. Pre-opening exercises seem to be standard evasive maneuvers at Cahuenga Pass.

Be that as it may, Van Hamel proved that Mikhail Baryshnikov isn't the only one who can provide stimulating work for Ballet Theatre stalwarts (and friends) between seasonal bouts with "Giselle" and "Romeo and Juliet." While the bosso assoluto leads his favored few to the hallowed halls of Las Vegas, San Jose and Sacramento, Van Hamel is taking a mini-contingent of her own on the road from Los Angeles to Woodstock to Vermont.

The contingent normally includes Kevin McKenzie, who serves as Van Hamel's partner, as a choreographer, and as associate director of the eight-member band. An injury struck him from the roster, however, and the ever-sprightly Johan Renvall almost literally flew into the breach.

Renvall worked hard, and ingratiatingly, in what may have been an unfamiliar milieu. Nature did not endow him, however, with the physique to partner Van Hamel in the "Black Swan" pas de deux, an elegant showpiece cliche that attracts incorrigible aficionados even to an unlikely and inelegant locale such as the Ford.

The cavalier duties fell, therefore, to young Robert Hill, who served bravely as a bashful foil to Van Hamel's glamorous, ever disdainful, ever-authoritative Odile. Given the odd tempo and painful volume of the accompanying recording, not to mention the vagaries of the alfresco stage, one could forgive her a few fudged fouettes .

Otherwise, the evening concentrated on novelty. Most of it was polite; a little was flamboyant.

McKenzie's "Grupo Zambaria" turned out to be a modestly sexy, subtle and supple, vaguely ambiguous quartet in which two couples explore the possibilities of partner swapping. The cheeky combinations and permutations are managed with class by Van Hamel, Hill, Christine Spizzo and a much-slimmed Clark Tippet, to insinuating piano tunes of Darius Milhaud.

The tunes, not incidentally, are over-overamplified. When will our non-rock engineers learn?

Renvall's solo, "Superboy," is an extended joke concocted by Walter Bourke. It begins with the portentous fanfares of "Also sprach Zarathustra"--a k a "2001"--which the impish Renvall ignores as he strolls on in practice clothes and strips down to a low-cut orange leotard. Soon the music becomes amiably grotesque Shostakovich and the dancing becomes amiably hard-sell bravura. The ballerino makes the most of it.

Van Hamel the choreographer, remembered none too fondly for the tawdry and torrid neo-biblical epic she cranked out last year for Ballet Theatre, is all sweetness and light in her two creations. "Chansons Madecasses" turns out to be a witty and knotty neoclassical ode to Ravel, suavely unraveled by Tippet, Alina Hernandez, Joey Carman and Janet Shibata. "Trio a Deux" trivializes Beethoven's string convolutions to a degree, but it provides a deft, dapper duet for Renvall and the spiffy Spizzo.

The sole flamboyant entry, Ann Marie De Angelo's "Next Time," closes the program with a nice touch of mod delirium.

Van Hamel slithers and smokes her way through an appropriately numb, rather ladylike Edith Piaf imitation. Shibata slinks about in mock-revealing crimson rags. Carman does a macho show-biz turn. Spizzo mopes like the demented Bride in "Wedding Bouquet." Alina Hernandez, all in white, pursues forward-looking purity. Hill and Tippet alternate as manipulators and partners. Renvall comes on in shorts, picks up a microphone and offers a distorted discourse on something unintelligible. Periodically, the daft dancers go limp at unseen and unheard cues.

The accompanying tape collage mixes songs of Piaf and Vangelis with nonsense phrases spoken by the dancers.

I'm not sure I know what all this means. I'm not sure I'm supposed to know. I'm not sure I care. It goes on a bit long. But it is theatrical. It is promising. It does flash a certain cheeky pizazz.

Maybe next time De Angelo will turn the other cheeky.

Incidental gripe: The fancy house program and/or the unfancy insert slip managed to misspell two of the dancers' names, provided no annotations regarding the choreography, no texts or translations for the Ravel melodies , no specific identification of the musical sources, no credit for the recordings appropriated, and not even the name of the composer or choreographer for Renvall's solo. Sometimes more is more.

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