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DANCE REVIEW : Eclectic Opening for Ballet Theatre in Orange County

<i> Times Music/Dance Critic</i>

American Ballet Theatre has long prided itself on its eclecticism, and usually with good reason. For the opening of its miniseason at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, the company wanted once again to offer something for everyone. In the end, unfortunately, it offered rather little for anyone.

The program opened and closed with dubious but familiar exercises. The quasi-Czarist manners of Balanchine’s “Ballet Imperial,” anno 1941, continued to test the current level of neoclassical finesse. The fragile Gallic charms of Massine’s “Gaite Parisienne” remained smothered by the cartoon-chic costumes of Christian Lacroix and the garish decors of Zack Brown.

Between these repertory exhumations, Mikhail Baryshnikov presented an unmatched pair of novelties: “The Fugue,” an emphatically non-balletic signature piece by Twyla Tharp that dates back to 1970; and “The Garden of Villandry,” a series of conservative menage a trois combinations and permutations concocted in 1979 by Martha Clarke and other Pilobolus offshooters.

Under such disparate circumstances, it might have been unreasonable to expect a great night for choreographic substance. This wasn’t even a great night for choreographic coherence.

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Tharp, who recently was given the official title of artistic associate, no doubt has a great deal to offer Ballet Theatre. Still, it is difficult to see how “The Fugue” fits into any master plan.

The work itself is a sparse yet fascinating study of rhythmic and spatial abstractions. It explores a specific, somewhat dated modern-dance aesthetic on intellectual as well as purely kinetic levels.

Three dancers in unison mufti--their gender is unimportant--stomp, slide, jerk and tap intricate, energetic messages to each other on an empty, Brechtian stage. Significantly, Tharp uses no formal score. The music is created exclusively by the sounds of fleet feet on amplified wood.

There is much manipulation here of structural order, much toying with mirror images and serial fragmentation of movement patterns. The piece still works. One just had to wonder what it was doing on this program.

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Its inclusion might have been justified if Tharp had reset the contrapuntal maneuvers on resident ballet dancers. That could have been interesting for us and instructive for them. That would have lent credence to the claim that this was a company premiere.

But Tharp was content to import members of her own ensemble--ringers, if you will--for the occasion. Thus, she reduced a potentially fruitful crossover effort to a mere guest gig.

At least it was a nice guest gig. Kevin O’Day, Jamie Bishton and Daniel Sanchez performed with slick pizazz, with fine-tuned mutual sensitivity and loose-limbed musicality.

“The Garden of Villandry” was created by and for Martha Clarke, Robert Barnett and Felix Blaska in distant Crowsnest days. It requires neither expressive innovation nor interpretive profundity. Nevertheless, it does trace the progress of three languid dancers in and out of some pleasantly picturesque knots, to the nostalgic strains of Schubert’s B-flat Trio, Opus 99.

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The physical demands tend here toward the trivial. The stress is on posing, magnetic gliding and subtle intertwining. The Villandry garden, not incidentally, is permeated with the fragrance of Antony Tudor’s lilacs.

One doesn’t need modern-dance credentials to lend credence to this challenge. Cynthia Gregory (replacing the injured Martine van Hamel), Ross Stretton and Michael Owen breezed through the piece with an air of lofty nonchalance worthy of Ballet Theatre principals. They also looked properly theatrical in Jane Greenwood’s quaint Victorian costumes.

Howard Barr (piano), Lawrence Shapiro (violin) and Armen Ksadjikian (cello) tended sweetly to Schubert at stage left.

Ironically, the best choreography on the bill received the worst performance. A year after it entered the repertory, “Ballet Imperial” still strains the technical resources of the company. It also seems to confound the stylistic resources.

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The principals on this occasion were a rather blank Amanda McKerrow, a needlessly bland Wes Chapman and an almost skittish Cheryl Yeager. The corps floundered. Balanchine deserves better. So, for that matter, does Petipa.

Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s set reduces a storybook image of St. Petersburg to a purple-kitsch monstrosity. It looked particularly gawdy on the cramped Orange County stage.

Richard Moredock struggled with Tchaikovsky’s G-major Piano Concerto in the understaffed, acoustically quirky pit. Jack Everly conducted with brio that gave way to elan when he later turned to Massine’s recycled Offenbach.

The company danced “Gaite Parisienne” with greater fluidity and focus than the ponderous efforts of last season had led one to expect. Susan Jaffe is beginning to define the potential charm of the Glove Seller, and Amy Rose is actually learning how to compete with her hyper-florid Flower-Girl costume. Ricardo Bustamante, succeeding Victor Barbee, returned as a tastefully self-effacing Baron.

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Danilo Radojevic, who replaced the injured Johan Renvall, seemed a bit world-weary in his first outing as the hysterically lecherous Peruvian. If his performance was more sassy than sprightly, it did exert a compelling aura of period mockery.

He couldn’t really compete, however, with the visual milieu imposed by Lacroix and Brown. Nobody could.


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