Since ballerina Olga Spessivtseva reportedly hated to dance plotless one-act ballets, it is a curious tribute to create one in her honor. But that's what Gerald Arpino did in "L'Air d'Esprit," a brief, formal showpiece pas de deux that he choreographed for the Joffrey Ballet 14 years ago to music by Adolphe Adam.
Spessivtseva was renowned for the spirituality of her dancing during a long career that began in Russia (at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg) and extended to Europe (principally at the Paris Opera and with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes) and the Americas.
Indeed, many observers found her performances strangely subdued: remarkable for their lyric purity but solemn and even mournful. These qualities have never exactly been associated with Arpino's output and were missing again in the first local performance of "L'Air d'Esprit," Friday in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
To the contrary. In what was nominally the adagio, Arpino set his characteristic hectic patterns of bravura feats--with Dawn Caccamo restlessly dipping and lunging and Ashley Wheater effortfully heaving her across his back.
The choreography for the variations and coda grew showier, and emptier--without fluency, musicality or feeling. But a genuine (if unintentional) link to Spessivtseva remained. She was famed for being technically capricious: sometimes precise, sometimes slovenly. Both Caccamo and Wheater ricocheted between these extremes.
Penelope Curry's dappled lighting looked identical to the dappled lighting in nearly every other Arpino ballet and A. Christina Giannini's costumes enforced a sense of 19th-Century opulence. John Miner conducted authoritatively.
"Light Rain" may represent Arpino puro: the ultimate statement of the choreographer's ambitions and taste. Certainly it seemed that way on Friday, when this pop pastiche presented a familiar company dancer in a major new role.
With his chorus-boy looks, the blond, muscular Tom Mossbrucker (replacing an injured Philip Jerry) proved ideally cast in a ballet that resembled nothing so much as a campy supperclub extravaganza. Partnering problems arose in the demanding duet with Leslie Carothers, but Mossbrucker's skill otherwise never faltered.
"Valentine" and "Birthday Variations" completed the program.