D.C. DanceWatcher

Lukewarm Welcome

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on June 28, 2019

TWB Welcomes
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
Choreography: Fokine, Balanchine, Ratmansky, Lopez Ochoa
Washington, D.C.

September 28-29, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Katherine Barkman (4)Three seasons ago, The Washington Ballet welcomed former ABT principal ballerina Julie Kent as artistic director, only its third since Mary Day founded the company in 1976. Expectations were high on how Kent would remake the chamber-sized company Septime Webre directed for 17 years. Aptly titled “TWB Welcomes,” the fall 2018-19 season opener at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater provided some insight into the company’s direction. Alas, that direction is nowhere new or innovative. The welcome in the title alluded to invited guest artists: ABT’s Stella Abrera, Ballet Manila’s Katherine Barkman, Houston Ballet’s Connor Walsh and Marcelo Gomes. Together they provided star quality amid the 24 company members and six apprentices, particularly after the loss of renowned and much-loved dancer Brooklyn Mack, whose contract was not renewed after protracted negotiations.

The two programs featured a classic Balanchine and a Fokine, a smattering of pas de deux, and each closed with a newer 21st-century work, presenting the company in agreeable light. The pair of mixed bills provided another glimpse at Kent’s vision for the company, which can be summed up as “ABT South,” for she appears to be re-shaping TWB into what’s most familiar to her ABT-friendly repertory and story ballets, like last year’s Romeo and Juliet and this season’s The Sleeping Beauty, both ballets frequently danced in Washington by touring companies.

Program A, titled “Exquisite and Exotic” do ballet programs always have to be named these days? was like summer television re-runs, opening with “Serenade” (which the company danced in the season prior 2017-18 season) and closing with Alexei Ratmansky’s “Bolero,” another repeat from the previous season. Likewise, Program B “Ethereal and Evocative” opened with Fokine’s “Les Sylphides,” another recent re-tread. Its closer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerisimo,” an all-male play on jazzy incongruities, was on the season opener just three seasons earlier in 2015. These programming re-runs rather than fresh repertory, put a damper on what should have been an auspicious welcome for a new season and invited guests.

“Serenade” was well danced and offered the debut of Gomes in the ballet. The company demonstrated growth in tackling the Balanchine staple, particularly the corps de ballet, which is looking stronger, crisper and more unified under Kent’s direction. “Les Sylphides,” alas, emitted a musty scent, save for the spritely Maki Onuki in the Mazurka, joined by Rolando Sarabia. The dancers looked bored, their performances mostly underwhelming.

Both evenings featured gala fare like the grand pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” and Houston Ballet’s Walsh proved a stalwart partner to EunWon Lee, while Katherine Barkman (invited into the company shortly after her guest appearance) displayed her solid technical attributes and lively demeanor, accompanied by apprentice Alexandros Pappajohn. Balanchine’s “Tarantella,” alas, lacked brio from Stephanie Sorota and Alex Kramer, and on the following evening Tamako Miyazaki and Masanori Takiguchi made this spicy morsel into milquetoast. The standout proved to be the richly layered and profoundly expressive pairing of Gomes with long-time Washington Ballet dancer Sona Kharatian in the first duet from Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” Kharatian’s maturity and heartfelt emotions pierced the sensitive work. With Gomes, the pair was spellbinding in communicating the work’s lush and resonant shadings, beautifully accompanied by pianist Glenn Sales.

Both programs concluded with 21st-century works. “Bolero,” with its sporty costumes tank tops numbered from one to six  skillfully set the six dancers into singular solos against the group. Their bored worldliness fleshed out Ravel’s oft-heard score. “Sombrerisimo,” with its jazzy riffs and competitively boyish roughhousing, ended Program B with a flourish as a flood of bowlers tumbled from the rafters.

Kent’s re-runs suggest either that she hasn’t solidified her vision for the company, or, perhaps, budget constraints are forcing the troupe to rely on recent repertory rather than investing in new works. Whatever the reason, the impression left was that The Washington Ballet’s “Welcome” is barely lukewarm.

Above: Katherine Barkman, photo: Ari Collier, courtesy The Washington Ballet

 

This review originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Ballet Review. To subscribe, visit Ballet Review here

© 2019 Lisa Traiger

 

 

 

Ballet Elevated

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on February 28, 2016

 

“Director’s Cut”
The Washington Ballet
Choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Septime Webre and William Forsythe
Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
February 25-28, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

The Washington Ballet_Director's Cut_Ashley Murphy and Oscar Sanchez, photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas (2)

Ashley Murphy and Oscar Sanchez in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “PRISM,” photo Theo Kossenas

Earlier this month, the dance world rumbled a bit upon learning of the resignation of The Washington Ballet’s high-energy, effervescent Artistic Director Septime Webre. Since his arrival in Washington, D.C., 17 years ago, he has transformed a staid and none-too-risky modest troupe into a powerhouse, with a stable of excellent dancers and a wide-ranging repertory that has introduced new rising choreographic voices, while still featuring  standards in the ballet canon. Webre, too, brought both story and more than a touch of glamour and show business to the city’s homegrown ballet company, with his own spectacle-infused evening-length works, like his trippy Alice (in Wonderland), his jazz- infused The Great Gatsby, and the sexy hauntings of Sleepy Hollow. And last year he conquered ballet’s Mt. Everest, presenting a highly praised and internationally covered Swan Lake, which featured one of the first African-American Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried pairings, with the casting of ballet phenomenon Misty Copeland and leading Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack.

This season’s programming has been less flashy and more retrospective, so, if ballet watchers had read the signs, Webre’s departure was already on the horizon. As part of his final season as artistic director, this week his “Director’s Cut” features two of his choreographic favorites — half-Belgian, half-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who has crafted a few works on the company in recent years; and William Forsythe, the high priest of sorts of ramped up neoclassical ballet. And, of course, the program featured one of Webre’s more challenging abstract ballets, his State of Wonder, set to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with both a live on stage pianist and a live harpsichordist accompanying the choreography.

As always, Webre bounded on stage for his pre-show curtain speech, chic in his slim black jeans, if not as boyish as he was nearly two decades ago in his first season following company founder and grande dame Mary Day’s retirement.

The program opener, Lopez Ochoa’s PRISM, had its world premiere on the company two years ago. Taken by the well-known and beloved Koln Concert by jazz great Keith Jarrett, the choreographer parsed his 28-minute improvised piano improvisation, which is variously sunny and tinkling with lively piano musings and then somber and moody, honing in on more shadowy, cooler shadings.

Since the musical piece was recorded live in 1975, while Jarrett was on tour and his piano didn’t arrive, he instead decided to improvise beginning with the four notes from the theater’s lobby that notified patrons the show was about to begin. We hear in that historic aural snapshot the pianist’s own vocal exclamations, at first almost jarring, then simply sweetly human. Lopez Ochoa found inspiration in this musical contrast and Jarrett’s virtuosity tinged with a lively humanness. Her choreography swirls, winding and unwinding, changing tone and color — even the costumes evolve from severe black turtle necks, biker shorts and black socks for the men and jewel-toned high/low dresses for the women, to black and sheer leotards with gloves and spidery designs. The smoothly easygoing nature early in the piece, following a rather severe, but eye-catching opener featuring a trio of athletic men, shifts into more splayed, edgy motifs — elbows and knees emphasized rather than straightened, fingers splayed. Lopez Ochoa interrupts this tensile and jaggy choreographic landscape with static poses: the group of dancers clumped, a leg or arm shooting out of the mostly grounded formation. And then, the work shifts mood again, the dancers circle and become a community in retreat, swaying, stooped, backs to the audience.

Webre’s State of Wonder premiered on the company a decade ago, and its return is welcome. Set to Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations, the work highlights the infinite possibilities Bach explored in his own thematic variations. The 30 short pieces, purportedly commissioned by Count Kaiserling to help sooth his insomnia, may have been played by a Goldberg, a 14-year-old pianist. For the ballet, pianist Ryo Yanagitani plays much of the work on a movable white platform, and he is later joined by harpsichordist Todd Fickley, on a second wheeling platform, which the dancers maneuver around the stage. There’s much to like in the brief choreographic variations threaded together by the 30 short piano pieces. Webre plays with couples, groupings and a few lovely solos. What stands out are the broad and sweeping variations for men, both solos and groups. There’s a Paul Taylor-esque sense of attack imbued in some of the space engulfing leaps and runs and the athletic allusions – at one point six men look like hunky lifeguards posing on a sunny beach, then two are lifted prone and “surfed” off stage.

The Washington Ballet_Director's Cut_Morgann Rose_photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas (2)

Morgann Rose in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” photo Theo Kossenas

Another section features some high-kicking and karate-like punches, as if Webre channeled Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid for his quartet of men. Liz Vandal’s costumes also feature jeweled tones. At some points the men are bare-chested, while the women wear swingy lycra-like dresses. One section clads the men in modified 18th century skirts, while the women wear modern-looking cutaway topcoats — a subtle gender switch. While State of Wonder is not one of Webre’s flashiest works, it offers fine ensemble dancing with careful attention to beautiful musicality from the company members.

The first time I saw American-born choreographer William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, featuring a crashing, booming, scratching techno score by Thom Willems, I was blown away by the boldness, the bored audacity, and piercing stares of the dancers, not to mention the steely attack of the Frankfurt Ballet — once Forsythe’s company. It was the late 1980s or early ’90s. Contemporary ballet was in a state of evolution. Many American ballet companies still considered Balanchine’s neoclassical leotard ballets cutting edge, even as his many ballets became modern repertory classics.

In the Middle … begins with a bang, literally. An electronic, cymbal-like crash and bam startles as harsh, fluorescent-like lights etch the dancers in a relentless eerie glow. Clad in green leotards and bare legs, two women glare out into the darkness of the audience. As dancers enter and exit, arms and legs pierce and slash the space. Forsythe deconstructs the primacy of the stage — pushing choreographed moments to the sides as dancers are half-hidden by the curtain, or they turn their backs on the audience, as if we matter not at all in this futuristic universe.

Hanging about halfway above the dance space are a pair of golden cherries (though they look like apples to me), ironically alluding to the title — In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The work is a literal and mental workout — the women’s pirouettes spin around like whirring drills driving into the floor. They unfurl their legs in ear-grazing splices, their torsos teetering off kilter, but perfectly posed. The men leap and topple off balance, bold and bloodless in their hard, edgy conquests of the bare, black stage.

Nothing loose or easy-going happens here. The entire work is attacked as if the dancers are teetering on the edge of a precipice, with a sense of both abandon and accuracy — one wrong move and the whole thing could tumble into nothingness. The work demands unparalleled muscularity and a sense of urgency that celebrates a harsh pent up energy bursting force. Forsythe’s choreography when his work premiered on the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987 altered the way many ballets were made thereafter. He is, indeed, a successor to Balanchine, who in his day pushed classical technique to new levels. Forsythe did the same here and with his succeeding body of work, making the classical ballet fundamentals relevant for the new world of the late 20th-century. Today, nearly three decades after its creation, In the Middle … remains as starkly relevant and engaging as it was then. Thirty years ago, when The Washington Ballet was still working to finesse some of Balanchine’s more complicated works, it would have been hard to imagine the company could come so far. Under Webre’s direction his dancers are not only technically adept, they are adaptable — able to tackle the loose jazziness of Ochoa, the complex, occasionally quirky, partnering Webre so frequently favors, and, most refreshingly, the highly stylized sharp and relentless attack Forsythe’s choreography demands.

This review was first published February 27, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with permission.

 

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

 

 

Spectacle

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on August 31, 2012

Alice (in wonderland)
Choreography by Septime Webre
Music by Matthew Pierce
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
April 11-15, 2012 

“Noche Latina!”
Choreography by Edwaard Liang, Trey McIntyre and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
May 9-13, 2012

By Lisa Traiger

Maki Onuki as Alice and Jared Nelson as the Mad Hatter in Septime Webre’s opulent spectacle “Alice (in wonderland)” for The Washington Ballet

Ballet has had no shortage of showmen over its centuries. From Louis XIV, who personified the god himself as Apollo in elaborate court pageants, to Petipa’s academic pyrotechnics and colossal productions, Diaghilev’s riot-inducing Russian seasons in Paris and Balanchine’s moderne spectacles – Firebird, Jewels and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, come to mind – understatement it seems can sometimes be overrated. That’s nearly always the case with The Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre, a showman extraordinaire when it comes to programming for his fine chamber-sized company of 18 dancers. Recent seasons he has given his audiences equal parts bombast and baubles with a “Carmina Burana,” featuring the Washington Cathedral Society chorus on two-stories of onstage scaffolding; a Broadway-boards-worthy The Great Gatsby complete with a tuxedoed tap dancer, a jazz singer and swing band that rose from the orchestra pit; a storybook come to life with super sized puppets in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are; and a Disney-worthy retelling of Peter Pan with flying by rigmasters Foy. This spring the company’s two programs continued that spectacle-minded showmanship that Webre so favors – and that has built a steady and boisterous crowd of younger-than-average ballet goers in a town where gray-suited government and politics are the trade. Webre is certainly market-savvy in drawing both a crowd of the twenty- and thirty-something, beautiful and stiletto-heeled, as well as Chevy Suburban-driving families.

His idiosyncratically titled Alice (in wonderland), is a case in point. Seen April 11-15 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, the ballet is a dizzying trip down the rabbit hole into a wildly psychedelic world for one of Webre’s favorites, Maki Onuki. Here this tiny slip of a dancer was all tarted up in a blond wig making the Japanese-born ballerina look like a cartoonish manga character.

Webre enlisted designer Liz Vandal, who conceived the outre look of the ultra-extravagant production [which cost upwards of $300,000]. A one-time fashion designer whose costume work has been seen on Montreal’s La La La Human Steps and Compagnie Marie Chouinard, along with the Backstreet Boys, Vandal’s recent designs on Cirque du Soleil’s OVO are more representative of the direction she’s taken with Alice: fantastic, whimsical, garishly opulent and, needless to say, memorable. From the traditional baby-blue dress the title character wears, Vandal’s conception – Victoriana meets Peter Max and Ziggy Stardust – creates unique and unforgettable worlds in which the storyboarded ballet unfolds, like pages turned in a children’s storybook.

In “Wizard of Oz” fashion, Act 1 is a study in monotones – whites and grays – until Alice escapes her family, falling into a Technicolor wonder world where hot pink flamingos and decks of cards dance, cartoonish cooks battle and bicker over salt and pepper, a spectacle-wearing rabbit, a fiery pterosaur-like Jabberwocky, and other odd assortments of creatures pop up during the episodic adventures. Like the “Oz” movie, Webre doubles his casting, so the family members of act I, become the fabulous creatures and characters of act II. Alice’s imperious mother with her withering glare returns as a black-widow of a Queen of Hearts, emasculating and fearsome, while her bespectacled father becomes the grinning and aloof Cheshire cat.

Lewis Carroll here plays a role, too, jumpstarting the title character’s imagination, but in a pas de deux there’s also a sense of awakening sexuality in the not-yet-woman Alice as tenderly danced by Jared Nelson and Onuki. Later Nelson returns as the Mad Hatter, resplendent in a vibrant patchwork suit a ringleader at the tea party gone awry. As the white rabbit, Jonathan Jordan leads young Alice into these vivid worlds where flowers dance, a sexily slithery caterpillar smokes a hookah, a Dodo Bird and Eaglet (Brooklyn Mack and Emily Ellis) dance a Petipa-worthy pas de deux, and bunches of thorny roses, the bristling corps with roses adorning their heads, are unceremoniously painted red to please the domineering Queen of Hearts, while little children somersault as hedgehogs in a croquet game gone wild.

Played out in a white box set designed by James Kronzer, silk drapes, unfurled painted banners and rolled-in flats provide much of the scenic variety, and along with Clifton Taylor’s candy-colored lighting, the stage itself often becomes a brilliantly rendered canvas in vivid colors. Matthew Pierce’s score for 10-piece string orchestra provides the backbone for the choreography, lending notes of poignancy and tempering some of the wildness of Alice’s journey with muted tones that are at once reflective and forward going. That he ventures astutely into jazz, pop, Middle Eastern and other rhythms and genres, keeps the listener alive in this multifaceted journey.

There’s much to absorb in this version of the Lewis Carroll tale and at times it’s hard for even an experienced viewer to know where to focus, there’s simply so much happening on stage. But who can resist an orange-haired Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum pair passing through on a tandem bicycle, for example? Or gaggles of eight and nine year olds dressed as playing cards, flowers and hedgehogs, as innocent as first-recital budding ballerinas, courtesy of the Washington School of Ballet. Or gawk as Onuki soars aloft, floating, and spiraling on a near-invisible line that allows her to “fall” gracefully into the rabbit hole.

Alice (in wonderland) is filled to the brim with stunning tricks, opulent and eye-popping designs, a top-notch score and, even, a bit of choreography among all the traffic. But like other Webre-stamped ballets, choreography is nearly beside the point. At center stands the extravaganza, the spectacle. And while the dancers dance their hearts out, the wild applause the audience offers up is for the production as a whole – a collaborative team that succeeded in crafting a stunning world to re-cast an old story anew. Finally, Webre gives our senses a rest: one simple moment after all the garishness of the proceedings have passed. Alice ultimately returns home and we get a final glimpse of Onuki curled up in a cozy armchair with a book. Repose after the chaos.

***

Sona Kharatian and Luis R. Torres of The Washington Ballet in “Noche Latina!”

The company closed its 2011-12 season May 9-13 with another sort of extravaganza. “Noche Latina!” draws on Latin American cultural constructs and allows Webre to explore connections to his cultural roots as a son of Cuban-American parents. In previous seasons, Webre has brought in Latin-inspired programming from the likes of Nacho Duato, Paul Taylor (“Tango Piazzola”) and the director’s own “Juanita y Alicia,” based on stories about his mother’s childhood in Havana. One year the vividly clad Mariachi Los Amigos mariachi band strolled through the theater serenading the audience during intermission like a South of the Border half-time show. This year’s Latin nights program felt much like a one-note wonder. If flinging ruffled skirts, snapping fingers, tightly held stances and imaginary bullfights account for everything you know about Latin dance, “Noche Latina!” will nicely fill your bill. Each of the evening’s three works played the same notes over and over again. And on a program that featured two world premieres that certainly is disappointing.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sueno de Marmol” (Dream of Marble) felt the least clichéd, likely because it opened the program, and yet, with its run-of-the-mill theme of riffling through memories – in this case by walking among a garden of marble statues that come to life – it left little to really ponder. The company’s tallest, and most commanding presence, Luis Torres was the centerpiece of not only this work, but much of the evening. In “Sueno,” which translates to “Dream of Marble,” he was expectedly introspective, wandering through the fog and still-life of posed dancers clad in white – women in tiered skirts, men showing pecs in sheer body-hugging tops.

As a dancer or two caught Torres’ fancy, they moved together into small variations, Torres in traditional black and red transforming easily from sensual to moody to playful in this nicely wrought memory piece. Lopez Ochoa provides her dancers with lush and full-bodied phrases that they can really sink into discovering expressive fodder. A great compliment for a new choreographer is how comfortable the dancers looked in a work and here she knowingly captured their strengths without highlighting weaknesses.

Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba” uses late 1960s pop music versions of Astrud Gilberto’s easy-listening pieces. Think “Girl From Ipanema” and you’re there. In fact Aurora Dickie was that girl in this piece, followed by two of the company’s playfully sexy men – Brooklyn Mack and Zachary Hackstock. But “Samba,” like more than a few of McIntyre’s works, comes from the school of too many steps. With plenty for the dancers to do, lifts, balances, complicated jumps and footwork rush past in a sometime flurry that the samba – cool, calm, undulating hips – gets lost. A samba should feel like a walk on the beach – languid, feet sinking into sand, hips shifting softly, giving into the rhythm sexily with each step.

“La Ofrenda,” an evocation of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which celebrates folkloric traditions of honoring dead spirits, closed the evening returning to the skirt shaking, hand-clapping, hip-jutting school of imitative Latin dance. Choreographed by Taiwanese-born Edwaard Liang, the work looks like it used a video cabinet full of “Don Quixote” and “Carmen” DVDs as fodder. Torres once more played a central role, and the company joined as interchangeable spirits, roused to drink, clap, stomp feet, imitate a bull fight and the like. Paired with tiny Onuki, Torres made it easily look like he was dancing with a spirit wisp as he wound her around his body, held her aloft weightless before allowing gravity to take hold and pull her back to solid ground. Again, Torres seemed caught in a memory dance – this time one sometimes wild but always passionate – with spirits, while a village of crafty and boisterous souls let loose for him to tangle with. Decorating the somber stage were Spanish artist Cristobal Gabarron’s white skull-like mask cutouts, lending sometimes sinister, sometimes comic effect to the work.

The evening’s most vital performance came at intermission. Famed Colombian singer Toto la Momposina was joined by her cumbia band, Sus Tambores. They rose out of the orchestra pit with a wild jangle of rhythms, she gorgeous in yards of colorful cloth and a head wrap, brightening the evening with multilayers of syncopated rhythms and her deep-throated vocals. It was enough to make you stand up and get your hips shifting, pumping, swaying to the beat – something ballet doesn’t do nearly as well.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of the quarterly magazine Ballet Review and is republished with kind permission. To subscribe, send a check for $27 to: Ballet Review, 37 West 12th St. #7J, New York, NY 10011.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger
Published August 31, 2012