America may be in a new cold war with Putin, but the Washington Ballet this week takes Russia into a white-hot embrace.
In her first season last year as artistic director, former American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent seemed to emphasize a back-to-basics focus on technique and corps ensemble. She begins her second year building on those efforts, the company dancing with confidence and élan. In an ambitious program of old and new Russian masters, it demonstrated Thursday night marvelous versatility and dazzling talent, and one dares to dream, under the guidance of Kent and her husband, acting executive director Victor Barbee, of a golden decade leading up to the company’s golden anniversary. If, during last year’s transition, you were a little standoffish and skeptical, it’s a good time to exhale and come see a troupe of dancers in exceptional form.
The sweeping two-and-a-half-hour program celebrates 150 years of works by Russian choreographers: Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, and Alexei Ratmansky. Fokine’s Les Sylphides was originally called Reverie Romantique, and the 1908 classic is just that, a tale of a poet and the heavenly female spirits gathered around him. Before scenery and costume designer Alexandre Benois’s gorgeous impressionistic backdrop of a gothic ruin in the mist, softly lit by David Elliott, Les Sylphides unfolds with a languid grace to Benjamin Britten’s orchestration of music by Chopin. As staged by Susan Jones, it takes its luxurious time, allowing the 30 dancers onstage to indulge Fokine’s delicate groupings and symmetries. Endurance toe and balance movement among the principals is set off by the corps’ precise but muted transitions from one lush tableau vivant to the next. In our frenetic age, it’s an old-fashioned breath of fresh air, a spell of unironic grace for grace’s sake.
closes October 8, 2017
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Fireworks follow, though, with Petipa’s Act II pas de deux from Le Corsaire, a swashbuckling show piece. Brooklyn Mack and Eunwon Lee exude sheer star power, owning the stage from their very first entrances. Mack’s aerial displays and turn sequences from both dancers were breathtaking.
Ratmansky’s 2001 Bolero is an enticing study in tense counterforces: centrifugal and centripetal, order and entropy, and conjoining and competing within and between couples and genders. The six dancers, three men and three women, wear numbers, white on black for the gentlemen, black on white for the ladies. Their movement is a blend of ballet, bits of sly ballroom, and modern, with each dancer soloing in an almost hip-hop crew type one-upmanship dotted with floor shoulder rolls and quick play-dead tumbles. It’s as if Martha Graham were invited to guest-choreograph a special episode of Dancing With the Stars. Ratmansky captures the slowly unspooling, stalking, spidery energy of Ravel’s classic score.
Capping the evening is Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. The last work choreographed for Ballets Russes, it premiered in 1929 just months before that company’s director, Serge Diaghilev, died. If you are familiar mostly with Balanchine’s later neoclassical and Americana works for the New York City Ballet, you’ll see another side to him here. Prodigal Son blends primitive and surreal elements, to a score by Prokofiev and with a simple but ingenious set and costumes designed by the Fauve artist Georges Roualt. The choreography is decades ahead of its time—postmodern, playful, and fabulously subversive.
The prodigal son, Jonathan Jordan, against his father’s wishes, is lured by a squat, centipedic group of conniving and debauched drinking companions and a strong-willed Siren (Kateryna Derechyna). Particularly with the Corsaire duo in mind, the couple sequence here is a rivetingly odd, fun inversion of traditional partnering. Far from leading, the Son is cowed by the clearly dominant Siren, whose linear, angular movements are extended by her comically long cap and red cape. He’s unsure how to approach her, and between her peculiar arthropod-like solos, she unsentimentally places him here and there. For their part, the drinking companions often move as one, in an amusingly creepy proto-Pilobolus mass, as they humiliate and strip the son, and, with the Siren’s help, rob him blind. It’s young manhood at its most emblematically humbling.
The Washington Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Charles Barker, was quite good—a little tenuous at times in the Ravel but hitting a self-assured stride with the sinuous semi-harmonies and labile rhythms of the Prokofiev.