“With any new endeavor,” said Washington Ballet’s Artistic Director Julie Kent before Friday night’s performance, “there is an element of risk – and excitement.”
The risk was in presenting Three World Premieres, as the evening was called, by artists – Clifton Brown, Gemma Bond, and Marcelo Gomes – who are known better as dancers than as choreographers. It more than paid off.
But then, as risks go, this was a calculated and prudent one on Kent’s part. Brown, of Alvin Ailey, has had a front-row seat to dance making as choreographic assistant to Judith Jamison, and he has set works by Alvin Ailey, Earl Mosley, and Jessica Lang on other companies. Bond, a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, has been choreographing since she was 13 and her projects in that role have revved up in the last decade. Gomes, until recently a principal dancer with ABT, has choreographed for a half-dozen companies. It wouldn’t be shocking, 20 years from now, to think of all three just as much for their choreography as for their remarkable careers as dancers.
Each of their pieces was an exploration of group dynamics. And while the works generally shared a neoclassical mode, each choreographer infused it with delightful idiosyncratic movement and conceptual vocabulary very much her or his own. The pieces also had in common classical but wonderfully unpredictable music choices.
Brown’s “Menagerie” is inspired and accompanied by, of all things, a duet for cello and double bass by Gioachino Rossini. The four female and six male dancers’ movement reflects what feels like an early 19th-century virtuosic jam session, complete with absurdly demanding runs up into the cello’s high register. Both the score and the motion ride on waves of joy, fellow feeling, and flirtation – among the dancers and, breaking the fourth wall, with the audience as well. I’m of two minds about that wall-breaking, and two disco-pulse-lit hip-shaking phrases toward the end. On one hand, it’s Brown the choreographer introducing himself, or so I read it, and saying, yeah, this is dance, it’s serious, but make no mistake, we’re going to have some fun. On the other hand, it breaks the tonal cohesion of the piece. I’d lean toward rethinking those elements. His respectfully sassy intentions are clear enough without them.
Bond’s stirring “Myriad,” set to courtly songs by Henry Purcell, includes solos for its six women dancers that display a range of moods and characters. In Bond’s words, the women “evolve and experience levels of strength, innocence, passion, and love.” The solos were engaging. But the more interesting aspect of the work is the way the women spin out of and then are drawn back into a lively, loving, but anxious collective, catalyzed and disrupted by the presence of a male interloper – on Friday, Brooklyn Mack, subbing, apparently, for Corey Landolt.
Two sections most affected me during the performance and linger with me afterward. One has the women on a diagonal, from front stage right to back stage left, dressed in flowing blue and purple, lying on their backs. The women arch and writhe, as if in anticipation or some kind of molting, in pleasure or discomfort or both, it’s hard to say, connected to one another in strange social synapse. The other sequence has Maki Onuki forming with her torso and arms a bent willow shape over Mack, as though she’s blessing, hypnotizing, and taming him, all at once. The motion is repeated by the other women, forming a mini corps in homage to Bayadere Shades and Giselle Willis, as they slowly glide past a seemingly chastened Mack. The passage suggests women’s collective hold over a representative man, but also the collective’s defiance of a man who would separate one woman from this tense sisterhood. It is powerful and inspired.
Onuki and Mack are featured again in Gomes’s “The Outset,” a lively little story ballet set to the “American” string quartet by Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak wrote the quartet while on summer holiday, in 1893, in a Czech community in Iowa. The dance depicts such a group, in the form of six couples, leading up to one of those couple’s nuptials. But tight-knit here is both comforting and constricting, and Mack’s character, named Martin, is itching to leave and explore the world, much to the chagrin of his amour, Penny (Onuki). Among the group members – and particularly among two men, Jack (Oscar Sanchez) and Hank (Andile Ndlovu), whose cross-currents are as vibrantly sensual as they are athletic – there’s a variety of leaping, thigh slapping, and whirling, much in keeping with Dvorak’s own folk interests and intents.
Casting shade on this sunny enterprise are the sudden snapping of those bonds between Jack and Hank, and the separation of Martin and Penny. The latter duo’s extended, melancholy pas de deux was beautifully danced and acted. You feel both the inevitability and the agony of their parting.
The Rossini cello part was ragged in places and the third movement of the Dvorak had a rough rhythmic patch early on, but overall the live accompaniment to Brown’s and Gomes’s work added to the evening’s overwhelming freshness and promise of bright balletic tomorrows.
These performances ran March 14 – 18, 2018 at Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC.
The Washington Ballet presents Three World Premieres. “Menagerie,” choreographed by Clifton Brown to music by Gioachino Rossini; choreographer’s assistant, Fana Tesfagiorgis; costume design, Jen Gillette; lighting design, Robert L. Fabrizio; Suzanne Orban, cello, and Marta Bradley, bass. “Myriad,” choreographed by Gemma Bond to music by Henry Purcell; dramaturge, Jeremy E. Steinke; costume design, Gemma Bond; lighting design, Robert L. Fabrizio. “The Outset,” choreographed by Marcelo Gomes to music by Antonin Dvorak; costume design, Judy Hansen; lighting design, Robert L. Fabrizio; Sally McLain and Mayumi Pawel, violin, Jennifer Ries, viola, and Suzanne Orban, cello. Produced by The Washington Ballet . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.