BALLET audiences may be gullible at times, but they invariably respond to quality when they find it. American Ballet Theater was beginning its two-month residency May 7 at the Metropolitan Opera House - the season had officially opened the night before with a reprise of January's commemorative gala. Primed by advance publicity celebrating ABT's 50th birthday, curious about its future under new management, prepared to be blown away by the company's biggest guns, the audience wasn't sure what to do: Throughout the first three ballets, tentative spatters of applause erupted in the wrong places; major stunts fell on unseeing eyes; dutiful ovations rewarded tepid star turns.
Then, scarcely five minutes into Twyla Tharp's new ballet, ``Brief Fling,'' all the doubt and suspense started to shake loose in little exhalations of laughter, gasps of surprise, stifled roars of appreciation. And the house exploded in a final outburst that called the company back again and again.
Whatever Ballet Theater may think about the audience's supposed love of tradition, Tharp demonstrated - and not for the first time - that dancers can look both wonderful and contemporary, and that the audience will understand.
``Brief Fling'' is a bird's-eye view of Tharp's collaboration with Ballet Theater. The title makes ironic reference to her attempted assimilation of her own modern dancers into the ABT organization during the year or so she spent as associate artistic director/resident choreographer. When her mentor, Mikhail Baryshnikov, announced his intention to leave last summer, Tharp's idyll came to an end. Now she isn't listed anywhere on the company roster, although several of her ballets remain in the repertory, and her future there is uncertain.
You'd never know ``Brief Fling'' was born of such a disappointing experience. The ballet is joyful, virtuosic, and brave. The dancers look totally energized and invested in the movement, as if devising new ways to make the audience see is what they do every day of the week.
Tharp sorted her ensemble of 18 dancers into four cadres, each with stylistically different music and movement, and mismatching costumes (by Isaac Mizrahi). The four groups dance on and off in unpredictable but not clashing sequences. The music switches, without blinking an eye, from drumrolls to Percy Grainger to expressionistic atonality.
The piece is almost a catalog of ballet styles: Romantic (a quartet in red plaid, suggesting ``La Sylphide''), classical (Cheryl Yaeger in a ballerina's tutu and navy blue tights, with Julio Bocca), modern (four couples in bold white plaid and ponytails), and Tharp dance (Keith Roberts and Tharp Company alumni Shelley Washington, Kevin O'Day and Jamie Bishton, half-dressed in practice garb and green kilts).
The action moves so fast you can't see it all in one viewing. Yet, in the moment, everything seems clear and immediate and witty. One pleasure turns into another, without pause for appreciation. Bocca flies through multiple pirouettes, then steps out of them to give Yaeger the floor. Washington spends much of the ballet lounging in the air, carried by her three partners. Bishton storms through a solo of huge leaps and rough but soft gestures.
Each group leads into the next, blends, or accommodates with the others up to a big fugue, where they all dance together in a formal pattern that still allows each group to keep its stylistic integrity. After that, they drift away to an almost-sweet string melody. The last thing you see is the corps in white beginning to strut on, hands on hips, shoulders leading, like the stalwarts in ``A Chorus Line.'' When the curtain comes down, you feel reconciliation is still possible, though you know it's just a wish.
Ballet Theater threw its full arsenal of bedazzlement into this program, but aside from ``Brief Fling'' it all looked ornate and archaic.
Frederick Ashton's ``Birthday Offering'' (1956) is a grandiose exercise in Russian-style classicism. Seven couples dressed to the teeth in awful ballet regalia - long, glittering tutus shaped like lampshades, tiaras, puffed-sleeve tunics - perform ensembles and variations that show off their elegant technique. The dancers looked very correct.
Next, Cynthia Harvey and guest artist Fernando Bujones waded through the Black Swan pas de deux.
After the blandness or fake hauteur that ABT dancers affect in the classics, it was a pleasure to see Carla Fracci's rapturous acting style in Antony Tudor's 1936 ``Jardin aux Lilac.'' (``Lilac Garden''). Fracci, a Ballet Theater favorite back in the '60s and early '70s, returned to dance one of her most famous roles.
Technically she's no longer on top of Tudor's demanding choreography, which might make the audience think Tudor was only about ``expressive'' dance, but Martine Van Hamel, as the proud Other Woman, revealed Tudor's genius for steps with the passion built into them.
``Jardin'' - languishing in tragic longings, guilty secrets, and loveless marriages - seems quaint and a little farfetched today.
But Tudor's nostalgic vapors, along with the pomp of imperial classicism, are apparently going to be a mainstay as ABT strides backward into the next decade.