The quicksilver charm of a Bournonville ballet lost to audiences for the past 130 years came to light this week with the East Coast premi`ere of Ballet West's ``Abdallah,'' at Kennedy Center. Ballet West's director, Bruce Marks, dedicated the opening-night performance to his wife, Toni Lander, former ballerina with the Royal Danish Ballet, who is an authority on this important 19th-century Danish choreographer. She reconstructed Bournonville's Arabian Nights ballet and choreography, bringing it back to joyous life again. The result is an evening of blithely beautiful dance. Convoluted plot
For an audience not familiar with the complex plot of the 1855 work, however, this is a ballet that needs subtitles. Act I opens with villagers gathered around the fountain in the town square of Bashra, where a young shoemaker named Abdallah (Miguel Garcia) is offering an orange as a prize for the dancer with the lightest step in town. An exquisite dancer named Irma the Gazelle (Lee Provancha Day) wins not only the orange but his heart, and we are off into a romantic fantasy that develops into Bournonville's version of ``Aladdin's Lamp'' in Act II.
A magic candelabrum given Abdallah by the mysterious stranger Sheik Ismail (Bruce Marks), who has fled from Turkish soldiers, grants Abdallah his richest wishes, among them a palace and harem, as each candle is lit. It is forbidden to light the final candle, so of course Abdallah does, and the whole fantasy disappears in orange smoke.
Act III, set in Sheik Ismail's Palace Garden, resolves the whole convoluted plot: Irma, who had run away insulted by Abdallah's offer to join his Act II harem, has now been made a princess by the victorious ruler, Sheik Ismail, in gratitude for hiding him from the Turks. When Abdallah the shoemaker appears to fit the foot of the veiled princess, he recognizes it as that of ``the Gazelle of Bashra,'' the Sheik adopts him as a son, and the pair are to be married in a lyrical finale. Exuberance and grace
Heavy plot aside, Ballet West has captured the feathery lightness, joy, and exuberance that are intrinsic to the Bournonville tradition in better-known works like ``La Sylphide'' and ``Napoli.'' One of the most magic moments in Act I occurs when Lee Provancha Day as Irma wafts on stage, light as meringue, cradling a mandolin to divert the Turkish soldiers from their manhunt. Day seems to float, radiant, through this ballet and symbolize its spirit.
Where she floats, Miguel Garcia as Abdallah glides gracefully. He has a sinuous, silky style touched with languor and a face that at times resembles both stills of Nijinsky in ``Afternoon of a Faun'' and Valentino in ``The Sheik.'' He seems more aware of himself, less immersed in the role than she, and less ardent.
The ballerinas of the Ballet West company are a delight to watch, buoyant and light as mayflies dancing, but some of the male dancers are at times ragged and, to use a film term, out of sync.
Bruce Marks, who dances the Sheik with a majestic drama, might also consider clarifying the plot for the audience by making the prop cues more obvious. The important magic candelabrum in the murky Act II opening scene, for instance, was so small and indistinguishable that a man behind me in the third row muttered, ``What is that thing?''
The ravishing costumes and sets, designed in total harmony by Jens-Jacob Worsaae, are an important part of this ballet drenched in romanticism. One shimmering blue scene in the Act II harem, for instance, looked like a Degas painting.
And Holger Simon Paulli's lovely, rhapsodic music for ``Abdallah'' lifts the ballet along from Act I through III. On the whole, ``Abdallah,'' like Mozart's newly discovered ``Odense'' symphony, is once-buried treasure that has been brought to light to delight today's audiences.
Another cast is dancing the ballet on alternate days. -- 30 --