The Bach/Beatles Project
The Washington Ballet
Eisenhower Theater
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
May 11, 2006

by Kate Mattingly
copyright ©2006, Kate Mattingly

Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, was smart to close The Bach/Beatles Project with choreography by Trey McIntyre. Concise, musical and eloquent, McIntyre's section of the two-part program featured eight dancers. Accompanied by 12 Beatles songs, they bounced and grooved, capturing the spirit of what has made the Washington Ballet what it is today.

During the first half of the program, the entire company — about 20 dancers including an apprentice and a guest artisy — performed 30 variations created by Webre and set to Bach's "Goldberg Variations." Webre called his section of the evening "State of Wonder;" McIntyre's called his "Always, No Sometimes."

The through-line of the performance was the exceptional commitment of the dancers. Whether maneuvering through Webre?s complicated lifts or shimmying to the tunes of the Beatles, they were a joy to watch, and redeemed some choreography that was mediocre at best. It was especially gratifying to see the company on stage again, their first performance together since contract disagreements led to the canceling of their Nutcracker season and months of unemployment. This crisis may have curtailed Webre?s creation period for the project.

Webre took the title for his section from a Glenn Gould quote — "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity" — but his choreography did not conjure a transformative experience. The steps looked derivative and rarely connected with the music in a way that showed sensitivity or nuance. The partnering looked like the couples' contortions in works by William Forsythe, and the red, floor-length skirt worn briefly by one man looked like the costume on the men in Jiri Kylian?s Arcimboldo.

If I were to choose one word to describe the choreography it'd be thwacky. The women often titled off their central axis tipping their hips back and extending one leg high to the side (usually assisted by a partner). Asymmetrical and slightly awkward, the move was interesting once or twice, but lost its appeal on the tenth and eleventh repetition.

In Variation 9, Jason Hartley and Jonathon Jordan reenacted a martial arts sequence, and, several variations later, a larger group of dancers did the same moves. Mixing genres of music and styles of movement is one of the cornerstones of post-modernism, but Webre's dance-making seemed to disregard Bach. His movement vocabularies looked arbitrary and when the dancers came out with the musicians — a harpsichordist and pianist on elevated platforms — they pushed the musicians and instruments around like furniture movers while the music continued lyrically and gracefully.

What does it mean to choreograph to Bach? Thanks to the innovators of the 20th century, dances can be about a score and steps co-existing without connection (Cunningham-esque) rather than intertwining steps to music, as George Balanchine did so brilliantly with "Concerto Barocco" and Martha Graham did with Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring." It's difficult to hear these scores by Bach and Copland without picturing the dancers on stage — even when there's no theater in sight. Unfortunately "State of Wonder" slipped between these options, leaving me wondering which approach Webre had taken. Did he intentionally ignore the music, but then there would be a lone pose or gesture that acknowledged a musical phrase. I think some of the variations that were interesting would have been more effective to different music or even silence, but then the project wouldn?t have had such a snappy title.

One of the most successful parts of "State of Wonder" came towards the end when the whole ensemble was on stage in rows doing tendus to Bach. Simple and powerful, the steps looked as if they could have part of a ballet class in a studio, while the dancers' movement quality captured the lush lyricism pouring out of the music.

The clarity in McIntyre?s section was in sharp contrast to the fussiness of Webre's first half. Rather than the multiple costume changes that characterized "State of Wonder," dancers in "Always" wore white jeans and t-shirts for the men, dresses for the women. Even if the designs were borderline bland, at least they mirrored the casual ambience of the piece. The dancers' facial expressions were similarly sincere, their smiles as real as those in the audience.

Music has the power to conjure memories of particular places and people. Like a familiar scent, a song can remind us of a specific day where we first heard its melody: "Golden Slumbers" put me in the passenger seat of car listening to Abbey Road. Throughout "Always," the dancers similarly transported us. Some of McIntyre's musical sections were lesser-known tunes, but the choreography didn't veer into the outlandish. Crisp and animated, his steps honored the score. Like moving metronomes, the corps often moved to the beat, stepping their feet with the pulses of the song, while a soloist like Michele Jimenez danced the melody. The effect was delightful. One stand-out section was "Oh-la-di, Oh-la-da."

It encapsulated the fresh energy of the project and recalled the excitement around premieres when Choo San Goh was the resident choreographer at Washington Ballet. When he unveiled new works like "Unknown Territory," the movement was contemporary, intensely musical and a little shocking. The Washington Ballet created a stir. The company was hot then, and is hot again, phoenix-like rising from ashes.

Volume 4, No. 19
May 15, 2006

copyright ©2006 Kate Mattingly



©2006 DanceView