- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

Septime Webre rolled out a star-spangled show with the Washington Ballet Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center. Dancing is only part of the multifaceted program, “Noche Latina!” the company is performing through this weekend.

Four groups of Latino musicians are an important part of the mix. They’re an appealing bunch. One group, Mariachi Los Amigos, struts down the aisle in big sombreros and gaucho pants to start the evening with a flourish. Another, Mystic Warriors, plays intriguing, soulful music on Andean and pan flutes to greet the crowd coming out at intermission. A third, a rollicking quartet from Mexico led by Celso Duarte, played Celtic and Mexican harps while a vivid vocalist breaks into song and stamped out spirited rhythms with her feet.

With all this intense music-making, the only ballet within the program to enjoy the advantage of live music was Mr. Webre’s “Juanita y Alicia,” performed to the sounds of Sin Miedo, a local Cuban group. The other dancers used recorded music.

The program premiere was Paul Taylor’s “Piazzolla Caldera,” a sizzling take on smoke-filled dance halls and steamy or bleak sexual encounters. Or, in the words of the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, included on the program: “The flawed confusion of human beings, impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and of urine … as impure as old clothes, as a body, with its foodstains and its shame, with wrinkles, dreams, stupidities, doubts, affirmations …”

It’s a tough, smoldering world Mr. Taylor captures brilliantly in his raw, searingly honest, complex choreography. It calls for strong, weighted torsos to project its gritty reality, but with a few exceptions, the Washington Ballet dances the work with a light ballet gloss. Even so, “Piazzolla Caldera” was the meatiest, most fascinating work on the program — and if it remains in the repertoire, the dancers undoubtedly will find its edgier style.

After the unblinking outlook of the Taylor work, the other two dances brought large doses of sentimentality. Nacho Duato’s “Na Floresta,” set to music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, is a paean to nature, underscored by the soft green of its abstract forest background; its folk-tinged choreography; and the simple, undulating patterns the dancers make with angled arms and rippling floor patterns.

Mr. Webre’s “Juanita y Alicia,” a nostalgic tribute to memories of his family’s Cuban stories he heard as a child, was spiced with enticing production values — a large sepia picture of a long-ago Cuban family projected as a backdrop and the musicians of Sin Miedo arranged across the back of the stage.

One of the strongest impressions of the evening was the superb collection of male dancers the company has.

First among equals on Thursday’s program was Jason Hartley, a powerful performer and brilliant acrobat, vivid every moment onstage.

His keen dance intelligence, sensitive musical response and bighearted openness are rare and riveting. Mr. Hartley is one of the most remarkable dancers ever to have performed here.

Jonathan Jordan, who matches him in incisiveness, is often paired with Mr. Hartley for their virtuoso delivery. Mr. Jordan brings his own quality, especially his beautifully pure classical technique.

The other impressive classicist in the company is Runqiao Du, who has less to do in this exuberant program but is invaluable when it’s a princely role you want.

Jared Nelson seemed to slump a couple of years back but is now one of the most arresting and versatile performers in the company, making a strong impression in all three of the evening’s ballets.

Add to that the emergence of Luis Torres as a strong and witty partner; Alvaro Palau’s new authority; the steady, intelligent presence of Chip Coleman; and interesting newcomers, and you see the finest male group the company has ever had.

Three of the company’s strongest ballerinas are missing: Michele Jimenez to dance with the Dutch National Ballet and Brianne Bland and Erin Mahoney sidelined by injuries or health. However, Laura Urgelles is a vivid dancer, Maki Onuki is a true original, Morgann Rose displays dramatic gifts, Sona Kharatian is blossoming, and apprentice Jade Payette shows the instincts of a natural-born performer.

The night’s carnivallike air gave the feel of a large, successful party, a testament to Mr. Webre’s talent as a host. It’s undoubtedly a way to win friends, and a bit of extra fun and froth certainly can be part of a serious art group’s profile. But this is set in the middle of a season that has included a nightclub number, “Oui, Non,” on the opening program and has a repeat of the flamboyant “Carmina Burana” coming up, followed by a series in its ballet studios that is to feature a lot of exposed flesh up close and personal.

A dance group not only has to figure out what its audience wants but has to develop the taste of the audience it wants. Sometimes I’m concerned about that when I’m at a Septime Webre program.

***

WHAT: Washington Ballet in “Noche Latina!”

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

WHERE: Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $29 to $125

PHONE: 202/467-4600 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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