When American Ballet Theatre returned to the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday for its second local season, the vehicle, believe it or not, wasn't "Nutcracker."
Instead of the customary yuletide cliche, the company ventured two novelties: the much heralded premiere of an ambitious neoclassical opus by Clark Tippet, and the strangely unheralded premiere of yet another "Raymonda" suite by Mikhail Baryshnikov--"after Petipa," of course.
The familiar ABT version--an iconoclast might say per version--of Balanchine's "Symphonie Concertante" gave the evening its not-too-grand finale.
The company seemed a bit rusty. The corps de ballet tended to bumble. The orchestra sounded unrehearsed. The hyper-resined stage floor did a lot of squeaking. A technical mishap prevented the final curtain from falling.
And, adding to a general aura of disorientation, the clap-happy first-nighters seemed to regard the music of Glazunov, Bruch and Mozart as incidental accompaniment for obtrusive applause.
Still, much of the solo dancing was splendid, and the repertory proved interesting. All was not lost.
Clark Tippet endured a rather spotty career as a princely danseur, despite his prowess as a partner and porteur. More recently, he has shown promise in character roles. His real forte, however, would seem to be choreography.
Last season, he dropped a snappy calling card in the form of a modernistic exercise entitled "Enough Said." This year, for a strikingly dissimilar encore, he has produced an intriguing network of pas de deux to the lush romantic strains of the Bruch Violin Concerto, No. 1.
The quality of the ballet, which bears the title of its musical source, fluctuates from section to section.
The first movement, juxtaposing a gentle duet for Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner with a rather turbulent duet for Leslie Browne and Ricardo Bustamante, is a fitful, episodic affair. It offers bright and brash ideas within a conventional bravura idiom, accents predictable formal maneuvers with nice quirky surprises, flashes deft contrasts in tone and stress.
Often, unfortunately, Tippet loses focus and flirts with linear incoherence. He also asks too little of the secondary couples.
The last movement, a fleet tarantella-like duettino for Cheryl Yeager and Wes Chapman, incorporates more motion than the musical traffic will bear.
But the middle movement, a languid duet for Susan Jaffe and Tippet himself, is a minor miracle of legato invention. Tippet responds to the sentimental cantilena with arching lifts and complex turns, willowy ballon and whispering beats. The result is lovely, poignant and an instant crowd-pleaser.
All the principals danced with authority and emotive focus. The performance was dominated, however, by Jaffe's generously scaled, extraordinarily suave, casually ethereal performance in the central pas de deux.
Dain Marcus designed evocative, color-coded tutus for the women and matching rustic-hero outfits for the men. Lawrence Shapiro brought elegant nostalgia to the violin solos, while Charles Barker tried nobly, if unsuccessfully, to keep the pit band together.
Baryshnikov labels his latest "Raymonda" mishmash "Grand Pas Classique." The 35-minute divertissement is classical in style all right, but it also is much more than a big duet.
In this oddly abstract production, the titular duties are divided among five ballerinas. So much for continuity.
Martine van Hamel, sympathetically partnered by Ross Stretton, managed to sustain an air of sensuality and aristocratic hauteur in the primary duties, despite a ridiculous get-up by Barbara Matera that imposed a floppy-plumed cap, prissy white gloves and a thick fur-trimmed bodice.
The new costumes, incidentally, are said to have been inspired by the original Maryinsky designs of 1898. If this indeed is so, the quest for authenticity was ill-advised.
The remaining variations in this dancer's digest were shared by Marianna Tcherkassky, Alessandra Ferri, Christine Dunham and Amanda McKerrow, all surprisingly pallid, some surprisingly tentative.
The infamous pas de quatre for competitively spinning knights was raggedly executed by Wes Chapman, John Gardner, William Stolar and Ross Yearsley.
"Symphonie Concertante," as currently performed, does no great service to the cherished Balanchine mystique. The genial outlines remain, of course, and the choreographer's enlightened response to the Mozartean impulse continues to fascinate. The ensemble looked ponderous and untidy, however, and the principals seemed oddly matched.
Although Susan Jaffe--in peak form--translated the violin solos exquisitely, a brittle and sprightly Cheryl Yeager contradicted the mellow profundity of the viola lines. Ross Stretton mustered the cavalier duties with new-found ease of elevation and elegance of extension.
Jack Everly conducted bravely.