writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Something For Everyone

Washington Ballet
October 2-5, 2003
Eisenhower Theater
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

By Alexandra Tomalonis
© 2003

The ballet audience is becoming more and more fractured, one reads. It’s difficult for companies to come up with repertory that will please many different tastes. Washington Ballet has its older fans, who remember the Choo-San Goh years and would like to see some of Goh’s works again. The company also wants to reach out to a new audience, too, and, it seems from recent offerings, to balletomanes and families as well. Artistic Director Septime Webre chose a line up of ballets for the company’s season opener that hit all the bases, then threw in a couple more for good measure: a Choo-San Goh revival; one of William Forsythe’s most popular works; a story ballet with a ballerina in a tutu and kids in the crowd scene; a new pas de deux (by Webre); and a solo choreographed and danced by company member Jason Hartley. It all seemed put together from an audience response survey, and so it’s not surprising that the program didn’t jell. Perhaps because the dancers were pulled in so many directions, the program lacked the powerful wallop of last season’s opener, but there was much good dancing from different casts on Thursday and Friday nights.

First up was Goh’s Momentum to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Goh, who died in 1987 at the age of 39, had created a substantial repertory for the company during his years as resident choreographer. His ballets were in the Tetleyesque-mode of the day (long on line and short on steps), his sense of structure and music were sound, and his craft was most evident in the way he could make a young company look more mature and accomplished than it actually was. Momentum was choreographed for the very young Bonnie Moore, whose body was as flexible and slender as a plastic popsicle stick. The unitard costumes (by Carol Vollet-Garner) were made for that body type, and aren’t as flattering to the more muscular dancers of the current generation, but the dancing on both evenings I saw was splendid. Michele Jimenez brought her beautiful line and mellifluous dancing to the central pas de deux (with Runqiao Du). Elizabeth Gaither, who comes to TWB from American Ballet Theatre, in the second female role, and Nikkia Parish, in the ensemble, brought a much needed punch to the Thursday night performance, which was otherwise rather mellow. Perhaps ballets can only be electric when they are new. On Friday, the ballet had more energy and flow as a whole, though I found Brianne Bland and Jared Nelson overly dramatic in the leading roles.

William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is in the repertory of at least a dozen ballet companies. It was built on the dancers of the Paris Opera and is one of the most balletic of Forsythe’s works. Dancers are said to love it because they get to MOVE—fast, and at full tilt (sometimes literally). It’s a test of their technique, stamina, and ability to handle contemporary material. Forsythe incorporates, or at least alludes to, French classical style, and some of those subtleties and nuances weren’t always evident. At present, the work is a stretch for TWB; some coped with the fractured classicism and off-kilter demands of the choreography better than others.

Since the conceit of the ballet is that it’s a glimpse of the dancers in class, or backstage warming up, they often walk casually when their particular dance moment is over, and they address their dancing directly to the audience, at times reaching out to us, at times seeming combative. The leading ballerina role was made on Sylvie Guillem, who’s as good at stalking, staring and getting you to notice her while remaining cool as anyone in the business. Without such a personality, the work lacks a center, and in both performances it seemed a well-crafted collection of bits and pieces, some incisively danced, others less so. On Thursday Erin Mahoney and Jared Nelson as the central couple, Morgann Rose, and Nikkia Parish seemed most comfortable with the work's demands. In Friday’s cast, the men dominated. Aaron Jackson had muscle to spare, and plenty of attitude; Luis Torres, who has surprising speed for a tall man, and Jonathan Jorrdan were also stand outs.

Firebird was one of the great works of the Diaghilev repertory. Fokine’s deft command of pacing and storytelling, his insistence on using pointe work only when there was a point to it, and his way of distilling everything he loved about the Russian ballet tradition into one act, were the standard of ballet for a generation. It proved a dead end. The Royal Ballet made the ballet live again in a fine revival in the 1950s (which I’ve seen only on film), but there are problems with the rights to all Fokine ballets now, and the Fokine version is not to contemporary tastes. The score seems irresistible, however, and so we have a new flock of Firebirds every season.

Robert Weiss’s version, which he made for his own Carolina Ballet, is unlikely to appeal either to those who like story ballets or whose major interest is classical dancing. The story is not clearly told (who’s enchanted? How? Why? Who is the Firebird? Which one is the Princess? Why does the Firebird have only one feather?), the choreography is unimaginative, and the ballet is stuffed with storybook ballet clichés: the women patter prettily; the monsters run, carefully, at the Prince who lifts each of them in turn to simulate a battle.

On Thursday night, with Brianne Bland in the title role, the ballet seemed to be about the Firebird; everyone and everything else was merely background and the wedding of the Prince and “Lead Princess” came as a shock. Bland has the authority for the role, and danced it cleanly, but she couldn’t be a one-woman enchanted kingdom. Friday night’s cast (Jason Hartley as a very powerful, warrior Katschei, the sorcerer; Runqiao Du as the Prince; and Erin Mahoney as the Princess) was more cohesive, and made it clear that there was a love story at the heart of this ballet. The costumes (David Heuvel) and sets (Jeff A.R. Jones) were colorful in a children’s storybook way.

Webre’s duet, The Poet Act, to excerpts from Philip Glass’s score for the film, “The Hours,” was pretty, though repetitive, and Webre has got to know that having the guy, dressed in pajamas, climb down a ladder from the flies is going to cause head-scratching and comment around the water cooler. Friday night, Elizabeth Gaither and Luis Torres made a drama out of their duet, if the actual story line was unclear. Gaither has beautiful feet and line; she’s a very welcome addition to the company. Jason Hartley’s gymnastic solo Nocturne Monologue completed the program.

Top:  Brianne Bland in Firebird. Photo credit: Stephen Baranovics.
Bottom: Erin Mahoney and Jared Nelson in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated Photo: Richard Greenhouse.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 2
October 6, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis




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last updated on October 7, 2003