- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

The Washington Ballet's fall series begins the season on a high note, with not-to-be-missed performances today and tomorrow of one of its finest programs ever. The scale is grand for both George Balanchine's soul-stirring "Serenade," one of the greatest works highlighting the corps ever created, and artistic director Septime Webre's boldly theatrical "Carmina Burana."

Grandeur takes very different forms in the two ballets.

"Serenade," to Tchaikovsky's lush "Serenade for Strings," is electric in the way it hurls a female corps across the stage in an awesome rush of sustained, lyrical movement.

"Carmina Burana" matches Carl Orff's throbbing rhythms and creates striking scenes dominated by three tiers of Cathedral Choral Society singers and, for the dancers, wildly imaginative costumes in such profusion that the stage seems populated by a crowd.

Through the years, the company's dancing of Mr. Balanchine's demanding creations has been uneven. Sometimes it has tended to project too much personality instead of getting the eloquent movement right so it can speak for itself. When the troupe danced "Allegro Brillante" last month, it did not look up to the demands of the ballet, which had been set on the company by Elyse Borne.

"Serenade" is a totally different matter, and Ms. Borne, who has long staged ballets for the Miami City and San Francisco ballets, has drawn an inspired performance from the company.

"Serenade" forms patterns of incredible beauty from the first moment its diagonal lines of 19 women shielding their eyes from the moonlight. As the dancers slowly brought their arms into a low curve in front of their bodies and then, in a twinkling, opened their feet into ballet's first position the point from which all movement starts the sense of concentration, pride, even devotion that emanated from them was palpable.

Much is made of the fact that Mr. Balanchine, when he described the genesis of "Serenade," talked only of technical problems he was solving ("one girl came late to class, so we kept it in the dance; another time someone fell down, so that stayed, too") though anyone looking at the dance can feel that it is speaking of something far deeper about the human condition. Mr. Balanchine rightly realized that words were not the key to his ballets: The power of dance is wordless, ineluctable, and one is keenly aware of that while watching "Serenade."

"Serenade" is at its most beautiful when dancers have the strength to show the movement with great clarity and spaciousness, and this the company is doing superbly. The large corps was augmented by a handful of dancers from the Washington School of Ballet, who fitted in seamlessly.

Besides the inspired patterns for the group a long diagonal line of dancers that suddenly swirls offstage like a breaking wave gathering force, the abrupt coalescence of women into a large circle pirouetting at breakneck speed the dance has rich roles for the soloists, too.

Michele Jimenez's always-beautiful dancing was enhanced by her growing artistic power; Erin Mahoney brought a spirit of freedom and elegance to her role; and Brianne Bland was razor-sharp in her many allegro passages. The supportive male roles were given first-rate performances by Runqiao Du and Jared Nelson.

Minor disappointments in "Serenade" were overly pale skirts for the women almost white instead of soft blue and pallid lighting that robbed the ballet of some of its mystery, especially at its inspired ending as the central woman is borne slowly heavenward.

The lighting was anything but pallid in "Carmina Burana," where the space had a postmodern look, exposed to its back and side rafters, while industrial-strength lighting sometimes held soloists in bright spotlights or cast the stage in mysterious gloom.

Mr. Webre, to whom less is seldom more, has pulled out all stops in his staging (designed by Regan Kimmel) with a giant wheel of fortune, complete with a glistening, flower-crowned maiden inside it, descending from the rafters.

Costumes by Vandal ranged from monk's hoods in early sections to elaborately constructed, oversize ball gowns, some two stories high, enough to harbor three dancers; one was gigantic enough for a whole regiment.

Playing with these theatrical elements, Mr. Webre creates dramatic situations that match the lustiness, pathos and raucousness of the Orff text, creating an ever-changing look at love sacred and profane, tender and wanton. Then he throws in more mischief with witty riffs on another text that inspired him: Virginia Woolf's "Orlando," a study of androgyny that races through history from the Elizabethan age to modern times, told through a hero that by journey's end has morphed into a woman.

In one scene, for instance, three 15-foot-high, red-haired Queen Elizabeth look-alikes are revealed to consist of three dancers, each supported underneath her pannier by two dancers, a man and a woman, both dressed in shiny black abbreviated pantaloons.

Mr. Webre's greatest strengths as a choreographer are his theatrical flair and talent for choosing creative collaborators. "Carmina Burana" makes good use of that skill.

The Cathedral Choir and soloists under J. Reilly Lewis' incisive direction, added immeasurably to the pleasure of the evening.

The Washington Ballet first danced "Carmina Burana" 2½ years ago, during Mr. Webre's first season as director. It is impressive how he has upgraded the company's dancing since then. Dancers too numerous to mention stand out in the current production, but mention must be made at least of Jason Hartley, whose brilliantly pyrotechnic, generous-spirited dancing is a marvel.


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WHAT: The Washington Ballet's production of "Serenade" and "Carmina Burana"

WHEN: Today at 2:30 and 8 p.m., tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $45 to $60

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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