Has there ever been a decent Liszt ballet? Everyone from Mikhail Fokine to Kenneth MacMillan tried one but nobody-- not even Frederick Ashton, who kept trying--seems to have found a genuine dance impulse in Liszt's ceaselessly flamboyant, inescapably turgid concert music.
In choreographing "Hexameron" to a composition mostly by Liszt-- partly by five of Liszt's friends or rivals--Joffrey Ballet dancer Philip Jerry has evidently tried to avoid the problem by pretending that the composer was Tchaikovsky.
At its Friday premiere, on a three-part Joffrey program in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, "Hexameron" sported less mercurial, Lisztian ardor a la Ashton than formal neoclassic display a la Balanchine. However, Balanchine's neoclassicism was built on enlightened musicality and here the dancing kept contradicting the score.
While Stanley Babin's piano and Allan Lewis' orchestra brooded, Jerry's dancers merely showed off their fancy technique--with painted smiles and aristocratic manners that always seemed profoundly disassociated from the Lisztian rant coming from the pit.
There were 14 dancers, led by a majestic if impersonal Denise Jackson and a secure if cold James Canfield. They all wore lurid strawberry- and pewter-colored tutus or tunics designed by Christian Holder, and they worked their way ever so elegantly through a string of etudes that resembled outtakes from "Theme and Variations" or "Allegro Brillante."
You can't blame Jerry for introducing his choreographic abilities (promising enough in regard to step combinations) via this familiar, reassuring style. You can't blame him, either, for wanting to showcase Jackson's regal command and Canfield's partnering prowess at their purest. You can blame him, though, for not listening to Liszt.
The Friday program also included the local company premiere of Leonide Massine's vintage (1924/1933) "Le Beau Danube" to Roger Desormiere's arrangement of music by Johann Strauss. Built on the flimsiest sketch of a romantic plot, the ballet originally served as a vehicle for the incomparable vivacity and style of now-legendary ballet personalities.
They certainly weren't eclipsed by the personable but rather collegiate-American Joffrey cast: Jerel Hilding as a brash stand-in for Massine himself; Patricia Miller as an efficient but unsparkling surrogate for Alexandra Danilova; Tina LeBlanc as a fleet yet bland shadow of Irina Baronova; Carole Valleskey as a charming, small-scale replacement for Tatiana Riabouchinska and David Palmer (with the sharpest, brightest characterization) in a role with just one purpose--unleashing David Lichine's springy vitality.
All right, you say: Ballet Russe personality-dancing is a lost art and even in Massine's generation nobody matched these stars at what they did best. So why revive "Le Beau Danube" today? Because Massine's step- and space- patterns are so clever, his musical sense so supple, the whole tradition of character-choreography so neglected that "Le Beau Danube" seemed fresher at 60 than "Hexameron" at its world premiere.
So welcome another Joffrey vault treasure, lovingly restored in its sepia setting by Vladimir and Elizabeth Polunin after Constantin Guys. Jonathan McPhee conducted.
Completing the program: Paul Taylor's "Cloven Kingdom" in a performance that was arguably second-best--though far above second-rate--on this particular Friday. (See Martin Bernheimer's review of the Taylor company's Friday performance on Page 1.)