Beyond the Beltway

CityDance Ensemble / Manassas Dance Company / Barbara Weisberger
March 2006

by George Jackson

copyright 2006 by George Jackson

Performances at some distance from Washington, DC were or will be of interest.

"Falling Into the Sea" surges and flows as seven exemplary bodies wash across the floor, entangle themselves in their own limbs and in the limbs and torsos of others, drifting off then to disengage or remain joined. This is not a new piece but an incrementally improved version of Paul Gordon Emerson's choreography of four years ago for CityDance. Then the bodies were those of mortals. Now they seem those of demigods, elemental forces in human form as William Blake might have shaped them. They are posed, moved, costumed and lit sensually. Parts of the piece, if you can tear your eyes away from its tidal alternations, are recognizable as duo, trio, double duo or ensemble so that a classical foundation supports the seductive idea of seachange and ceaseless motion. The individual dancing, too, has solid steps at its core but displays a fluid surface.

For his revision Emerson forged an ensemble. The three men—Bruno Augusto, Jason Hartley, Florian Rouiller - and four women—Katie Jenkins, Kelly Mayfield, Morgann Rose, Alice Wylie—use impulse, stretch, weight, and coiling as if they had trained together at a single school. Yet two of them, Rose and Hartley, have been temporizing at CityDance during the labor dispute at Washington Ballet, their home company. Petris Vasks' agitated music is essential for "Sea". By itself, I suspect, it would be an annoyingly gushy score. A simple tale of a fisherman lured by a mermaid underlies the concept according to a note in the printed program, yet what Emerson shows has complex currents. "Sea" was the major work at the March 19 performance in a mainfloor CityDance studio at Strathmore, the art and music center in North Bethesda, Maryland.


The Blue Ridge looked deep blue and beckoning on the horizon as the sun set behind it. I was approaching Manassas for a curtain early by Washington norms. Most of the audience there, though, is local and this Virginia town is far enough away from the Beltway to have its own habits and goals. Ground will be broken in summer for an opera house that's "a third the size of La Scala" according to Mark Wolfe, executive director of Manassas Dance Company. The retromodern structure is due to open in 2009, and two groups that collaborate often, the dance company and the Prince William (County) Symphony, are looking forward to using it. The program I saw on March 25 was in the auditorium of the Metz Middle School, which has been Manassas' principal ballet venue for a while. The stage is of modest dimensions and the musicians fit into the pit tightly. At 9 dancers, MDC is smaller this season than at times in the past but retains its split character. The men, predominantly, are Soviet-style dancers—built suitably for ballet and pliantly trained. This time there were just 2 of them and 1 American, whereas formerly Manassas boasted as many as 5 of these imported danseurs. The women are no-nonsense Americans. There are 6 of them currently. They are not size matched and seem to disdain giving a plush, cushioned response to choreographic challenge.

Philip Rosemond's "Nightwings" and his "Schumann Concerto" kept the Manassas dancers busy and tense. Even the ex-Soviets seemed to be under a slight strain. The first of the Rosemonds, a duet for Amy Grant Wolfe (Manassas' artistic director and ballerina) and Evgeny Lushkin (from Perm via Stuttgart and American Ballet Theatre), alternates neoclassical passages for the pair together with solos for one or the other of the two. That sounds as if it were a traditional pas de deux, yet "Nightwings" has more the feeling of a dance being done by a couple entered into a marathon. The music, from two Vivaldi concertos, featured Angela Uperti-Hite as solo flautist with the Prince William Symphony conducted by Christopher Hite. Why "Nightwings" was the title wasn't apparent.

For the Schumann concerto, played by the same musicians plus Geoffrey Haydon as the on-stage piano soloist, Rosemond used all 9 dancers. He divided his cast into two principals (Wolfe and Lushkin), two subsidiary pairs (Michele Bayerle and Igor Sapotko; Leanne Mizzoni and Jack Bettin) and a corps of three (Christina Stockdale, Elizabeth Nahser and Rachel Blyth Marlan). This configuration gave the impression of larger forces and enabled the choreographer to mount something of a symphonic sweep.

Between the two semi-abstract, balletic works came a character piece, Hilary Wright's "Moonluck's Upscale Coffee Shop". It had recorded pop music and less of a plot than that prototypic cafe-comedy, Massine's "Gaite Parisenne". While much of "Moonluck's" was plain silly, there was a first-rate mime, Sapotko, in the role of the cafe's proprietor. What Wright did with Sapotko (from Minsk, Belarus via Washington Ballet and Milwaukee Ballet) was really, truly funny. Moreover, Sapotko also moved well as a dancer.


When the School of American Ballet left Hartford after just a year and opened its doors in New York City in 1934, nearly all the pupils were adults and not beginners—the core contingent coming from the Littlefield Ballet in Philadelphia. There was, though, one 8-year old exception. Her first ballet teacher had phoned the school and been persuasive, so she was given an audition. Three sets of eyes were on her, those of George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein and Pierre Vladimiroff. Passing scrutiny, she started taking her lessons alongside the "big, beautiful dancers". After class, she would sit under the piano and watch Balanchine as he choreographed. Other children were admitted to SAB a few months later, and although she had missed the company of those her own age, she continued in the adult class for some time because she was no mere beginner. This coming weekend the American dance world will celebrate her 80th birthday.

She is, of course, Barbara Weisberger—founder (in 1963) of the Pennsylvania Ballet and its school, and later of the Carlisle Project for choreographers and composers. Between studying at SAB and her 80th, Weisberger's career hasn't always been smooth. Yet as a person she is persistent. Currently her goal is to make a ballet town of Baltimore. Her base there is the Peabody Institute (now part of Johns Hopkins University, and although definitely located beyond the highway ring surrounding Washington, it is within Baltimore's beltway). Officially, Weisberger serves as advisor to Peabody Dance's director, Carol Bartlett. Unofficially she's an instigator, incendiary and matchmaker for all sorts of dance goings-on.

The celebration being thrown for Weisberger is April 8 and 9 at the Peabody. Performing will be guest artists from the Pennsylvania Ballet (Jermel Johnson and Rebecca Azenberg in the pas de deux from Balanchine's "Raymonda Variations"), Marcia Dale Weary's Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Balanchine's "Harlequinade" (Saturday night only), and dancers from the Baltimore School of the Arts and Peabody Institute. Also on view will be an exhibit of rarely seen Balanchine photos. Happy birthday, Barbara, and may Baltimore succumb!

First: Bruno Augusto and Alice Wylie in "Falling into the Sea". Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson
Second: Igor Sapotko, Jack Bettin, Christina Stockdale, Elizabeth Nahser in a scene from "Moonluck'd Upscale Coffe Shop."
Third: Barbara Weisberger coaching a student.

Volume 4, No. 13
April 3, 2006

copyright ©2006 George Jackson


©2006 DanceView