The best thing about the Washington Ballet is the purity of its schooling; the worst, its mediocre repertoire. The 22-year-old chamber company’s hallmark style is the work of its still-active founder, Mary Day. She breeds dancers whose execution is invariably clean and gentle – a dream of lyricism. Over the years, a number of her protégés have become stars in grander companies, where they could be identified as her product, their admirable training linked to a refreshing modesty of manner. The present crop of Washington Ballet performers may be its finest ever – and so it takes a while to realize what’s lacking: lusty, authoritative attack and variety of dynamics, along with the brilliance at high speed and the ability to project incisive images that Balanchine has encouraged dance observers to demand. Still, the Washingtonians’ perfection of line almost makes up for its weaknesses.
Nothing, however, can substitute for decent choreography. The Washington group acts as chief custodian of the late Choo-San Goh’s ballets, about which I was unenthusiastic while a good part of the dance world was extolling Goh as a thrilling new talent. The company’s recent appearance at the Joyce opened with his 1978 Double Contrasts, to Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor. Typical of Goh’s classroom ballets, it’s an opportunity for nicely trained dancers to exhibit their nice training, with nothing more complex or absorbing going on. (Exposed to this sort of thing for more than seven minutes, your brain simply shuts down.) The present rendition of the piece showed the innate gifts and well-honed skills of the company’s men in general and the potential star quality of Ju Hyun Jo and Runqiao Du, who constituted one of the two principal couples.
Two of the ballets on the program were of the sort that are supposed to lend variety to classical-dance watching; many an aficionado, myself included, would be happy to be spared them. Icare, by Lynn Cote, the troupe’s resident choreographer, is one of those boy-turns-girl-inside-out affairs, danced in unitards that emphasize the crotch-shot nature of the activities. Granted, Cote’s version is almost up to those of this mini-genre’s master, the Joffrey Ballet’s Gerald Arpino, but the mode is less than rewarding and, by now, embarrassingly dated. Savannah, by the South African choreographer Ntsikelelo Cekwana, is one of those faux-primitive rituals that are supposed to make you ponder man’s relationship to untrammeled nature, to the animal ancestry of the human race, to the gods who animate creation. Mating this thematic material with a dance language of supercivilized artifice without looking patronizing or just plain silly requires a genius Cekwana can’t claim.
The company looked best in Nils Christe’s Sync. No great shakes in the originality or the depth department, it at least got the dancers moving with a fire they don’t often display. Composed of sharp, essentially abstract movement, it has a conventional contemporary subtext: the failure of human empathy, especially between the sexes. The scene suggests a dance studio where the female-dominant population ferociously repeats its repertoire of moves, alienated from feeling, until one guy grabs a gal in passing and the rest is – if not history, at least a pas de deux that proposes communication.
Of the works offered in New York, only the Goh was not a recent creation. While novelty ignites temporary enthusiasm on both sides of the footlights, the Washington Ballet’s most urgent need would seem to be productions of proven old works. These would simultaneously raise the caliber of its repertoire and extend the range of its dancers beyond the loveliness that, in art, is simply not enough.