With a sprinkle of bell-like percussion and a spray of dappled light, the Joffrey Ballet launched its fall season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday. There have been more gala opening-night programs--and less accident-prone performances--in the company's history. But the familiar mixed bill did offer one major new challenge, splendidly met: the Joffrey premiere of Paul Taylor's "Arden Court."
Taylor created the work four years ago as a showcase for the men in his modern dance ensemble and it remains a state-of-the-art homage to a distinctly American kind of male energy and elegance.
Against a Gene Moore backdrop of a single rose, six men in mottled green tights bound and vault exultantly, never losing the pulse of the music by William Boyce (from Symphonies 1, 3, 5, 7 and 8) that gilds their movements, much as those pseudo-Baroque fanfares gave a classical patina to the events of the televised Olympics.
Here, however, the interplay is free of any sense of strain or competition. When a woman appears, the men all lift her to the shoulder of her partner and "Arden Court" develops into a quirky exploration of ardent courtship.
In most of the ensuing duets, the male and female move at contrasting rates of speed--with Ashley Wheater, for instance, slowly stretching into X-shaped extensions (one of the work's major motifs) while Jodie Gates whizzes around him--scampering under and over his raised leg.
Later, it is Dominique Angel who creates the body-architecture and Raymond Perrin who sets off the kinetic sparks, but always the men remain the primary focus of the work. Without sentimentality or pretension, Taylor makes these sturdy, open-hearted guys a magnet for attention, envy and even wonder. (One woman simply follows a leaping male about the stage, awestruck.)
It's as if Taylor took those fatally alluring jocks from Martha Graham's feminist dance-dramas (part of his performing background) and purged them of everything dangerous and contemptible. What's left? Something like an ideal of virile strength, nerve and grace.
Obviously, the big-chested men of Taylor's original cast gave "Arden Court" an unmatched sense of mass and weight: When they jumped, it was rather like dolphins cleaving the water. In contrast, the small, slender Joffrey men on Wednesday made the work more of an adolescent divertissement. When they took to the air, it no longer seemed miraculous or transcendent: We're used to seeing ballet dancers jete.
Still, Linda Kent's scrupulous staging released a sunny magnetism in dancers previously seen but never much noticed individually. Even when insecure in his balances, Wheater exuded a sensitivity that made him a natural heir to the role choreographed for Elie Chaib. Douglas Martin also looked spectacularly promising in the lyric duet with a radiant Victoria Pasquale, and David Palmer blazed through those tricky turns-into-tumbles in the final section.
The evening began and ended with Joffrey Ballet staples that acquired an edge of incipient disaster on this occasion. Midway through Gerald Arpino's company vehicle "Suite Saint-Saens," Mark Goldweber sprained his ankle and hopped offstage. Randall Graham danced Goldweber's solo later on and Patrick Corbin replaced him in "Arden Court" (with Raymond Perrin replacing Corbin in the same work). A company spokesperson predicted that Goldweber will be back onstage in a few days.
Faux pas during the hoedown of Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo" nearly changed square-dancing to slam-dancing Wednesday, but otherwise the production gleamed with newly sharpened dramatic details and high spirits. Carole Valleskey and Glenn Edgerton led the cast.
The orchestra played Copland a bit roughly under Jonathan McPhee, but sounded first-rate in both "Arden Court" (for the same conductor) and "Suite Saint- Saens" (for Allan Lewis).