“Piazolla Caldera,” “Na Floresta,” “Juanita y Alicia”
The Washington Ballet
Eisenhower Theater
Kennedy Center Opera House
February 1, 2007

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2007, Alexandra Tomalonis

The Washington Ballet’s midwinter program, ¡Noche Latina!, was intended as a celebration of Latino culture and succeeded; the evening was as cheerful and energetic as a lively party, with nearly as much music (from Mexico, Bolivia and Cuba) as dancing. A Mariachi band played out front before the show and during the first intermission, and there was more music — much more music — played with infectious zest by Celso Duarte / Jarocho Fusion during the “pause” between the second and third works on the program. The dancers looked terrific and were extremely well–rehearsed. It hardly seemed to matter that two of the works were insubstantial, and the one first–rate piece — Paul Taylor’s “Piazzolla Caldera” — fell short of the mark.

“Piazzolla Caldera” is a gorgeous piece, set to the music of Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky, and a program note quoting Pablo Neruda leaves no doubt as to the work's intentions: ". . . .the flawed confusion of human beings....worn away as by the labor of hands, impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and of urine..." The dance — as fresh as it was in 1998, and showing Taylor at the top of his game — is one long, boiling tease, taking its themes as well as its rhythms from the tango: the stalking, the sensuous walking, the insinuating hips, the smoldering glances, and the macho struts and posturing of the men. It was clear that the dancers understood this, but they don’t have Taylor's style in their bodies. This is not so much the usual problem of what happens when ballet dancers try modern dance. The Washington Ballet dancers spend at least as much time dancing Anything But Ballet than the genre that’s part of their name. They’re substantial, not at all too light, and they’re not afraid to be sexy. What they didn’t quite have was enough edge, nor the easiness with which a Taylor body moves. What they did brilliantly was show the work. This sounds like a sine qua non, but it’s not nowadays. There was nothing sloppy about the staging (“reconstructed,” whatever that means, by Francie Huber) nor the dancing, and it was a pleasure to see “Piazzolla Caldera” again and see it so clearly.

No smoldering tensions to worry about in Duato’s “Na Floresta,” which tools along on cruise control, making the music (works by Heitor Villa–Lobos and Wagner Tisso) sound like something on an Easy Listening radio station. Duato was long a member of the Netherlands Dance Theater, and "Na Floresta" (Forests are pretty? Global warming is bad? Choreography is an endangered species?) looks like many of Jiri Kylian’s ballets of 20 years ago: women in long, drab, stretchy skirts, and both women and men moving in a soft, relentless parade across the stage. They slink along, sinking in and out of deep pliés (the movement is all into the ground; the women wear slippers rather than pointe shoes), the choreography numbingly repetitive. But pretty, and the dancers look pretty, though, alas, anonymous. (This is not the fault of these dancers. I'm often stunned, during curtain calls at ABT, to discover who I've been watching.)

Company Artistic Director Webre’s “Juanita y Alicia” is said to be a tribute to his Cuban heritage, inspired by family stories. It’s never really clear who Juanita and Alicia are, nor their exact relationship to Webre, and despite the episodic nature of the work, there's more of a sense of half-remembered memories than of a story being told. The dancers, dressed in loose, white costumes, certainly get to MOVE, and there’s a sense of motion, and freedom, and flight, that gives the work its character. The choreography is simplistic, pointe work is limited to extending the line of the leg and allowing for more pirouettes, but the work is cleanly structured and lets the whole company dance.

Ballet companies have been flirting with modern and crossover dance for so long that it’s hardly news that a “ballet company” would program an evening, and a season, that’s very light on ballet—i.e., works the dancers have spent most of their lives training to dance. Webre’s programs usually have a strong design element, and he’s got a knack for selecting music (“Carmen,” “Carmina Burana,” the works on this evening’s program) that’s extremely accessible, but why the avoidance of ballet?

The evening left me wondering where the company is going and how it fits into the community. The first time the company danced in New York under Webre'sleadership, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in the New York Times that the troupe seemed a contemporary dance coompany now and this hasn't changed. Washington Ballet has long enjoyed loyal support; opening night, the house was full and very enthusiastic; There was a mix of ages, but the audience was by no means overwhelmingly young, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would have come if the company did change its name to the Washington Contemporary Dancers, or would go to Dance Place to see a program of modern dance. Several years ago at a reception, I heard a WB fan ask another WB fan why the company didn't dance more ballet, and was told "they really aren't very good in those kind of works" but I'd disagree. There are fine classical dancers in this company, and I'd like to see them have the chance to show it more than once or twice a year.

Volume 5, No. 6
February 5, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Alexandra Tomalonis

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