Times Dance Writer

Far from a major repertory acquisition, the Joffrey Ballet revival of John Cranko’s “Jeu de Cartes” (music by Stravinsky) might well be written off as just another relentlessly cute costume-ballet used to end an evening in a mood of mindless cheer--the “Cakewalk” of the current season.

But that conclusion would ignore David Palmer’s sizzling performance as the Joker, Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In the local company premiere of this 1965 “poker game in three deals,” Palmer capped his already impressive achievements in “Arden Court,” “Love Songs” and “Jamboree” (on other programs) with the most precise, stylish and charming dancing he has yet shown Los Angeles audiences.

Cranko modeled the role on those antic/bravura jesters who grow so tiresome in Soviet productions of “Swan Lake.” Palmer, however, added a witty individuality and a lightness of touch that even survived his accidental pas de deux with an ill-fitting tiara on Friday. Is there a “Carnaval” or “Harlequinade” in his future? There should be.

Created for the Stuttgart Ballet, “Jeu de Cartes” broadly parodied 19th-Century classicism, macho gymnastics and exhibition ballroom dancing within its whimsical playing-card context and thus required dancers of considerable technical mastery as well as comedic flair. The Joffrey production (staged by Georgette Tsinguirides) may have softened some of the work’s class distinctions but kept the dance values clear and strong.

Among the subsidiary cards, Lauren Rouse expertly weathered the mock clumsiness of the Rose Adago spoof in the opening section (or “first deal”) and, a shuffle later, Patrick Corbin danced his solo nimbly enough to suggest the notion of a second Joker disguised as the Two of Hearts. Allan Lewis attended to Stravinsky’s satiric score knowledgeably and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting deftly heightened the flat, bold look of Dorothee Zippel’s set and costumes.

Two familiar Gerald Arpino ballets--"Kettentanz” and “Round of Angels"--completed the program, each of them distinguished by the faultless, commanding performance of Leslie Carothers in a central role. Jonathan McPhee conducted both ballets capably, and the orchestra continued to sound excellent.