- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

The Washington Ballet has a sure-fire hit in its yearly “7 X 7” program, in which each of seven choreographers makes a small-scale work — about seven minutes long — for a cast of two to six of the company’s unusually handsome dancers.

At the opening Thursday of a three-week run, these miniballets were of various interest — but one was breathtaking: Karole Armitage’s “Gathering His Thoughts,” set to the famous Hamlet soliloquy, “To be or not to be.”

Her work succeeds on every level. It truly develops from a Shakespearean dramatic situation or theme, its conception is a novel approach to the plotline, and most important of all, the choreography is arresting, vivid and brilliantly danced.

“Gathering His Thoughts” has a further inspiration. Miss Armitage uses a recording of Richard Burton’s rich voice speaking Hamlet’s words (also with music by Daniel Iglesias), a device that provides both clarity of intent and a rich aural background.

The searing indecision in the text is portrayed by four men — a central Hamlet and three others acting out his conflicting emotions. Their movements are taut, fraught with meaning, and galvanizing in their execution. As the three embodiments of Hamlet’s bewildered thoughts, Runqiao Du, Chip Coleman and Aaron Jackson are splendid, while Jared Nelson as Hamlet, given the role of a lifetime, seizes it with a mesmerizing performance. It is a short role but with heroic dimensions — a pretty accurate description of the entire piece.

These “7 X 7” works are writ on water, seen once, never to return. But it would be a tragedy, if not of Shakespearean proportions, for “Gathering His Thoughts” to slink away. Paired with another short work, it would be a striking addition to any Washington Ballet program.

Perhaps it could be shown with another “7 X 7” standout — Trey McIntyre’s “Queen of the Goths,” a rumination on a subplot in “Titus Andronicus.” His miniature work has some of the qualities of Miss Armitage’s — exciting choreography and authoritative performance.

Its one flaw is the obscurity of its subject matter. The brief preperformance speech by artistic director Septime Webre partly illuminated the plot, followed by the bold clarity of the movement. Further pleasures are the intensity of the superlative cast (Sona Kharatian, Jonathan Jordan and Jason Hartley) and Mr. McIntyre’s unusual but surprisingly apt choice of music — two singular scores by Nancy Sinatra and Supergrass; their pounding rhythms giving a taut modern gloss to an ancient myth.

The evening’s costuming, minimal but effective, is by Monica Leland with the exception of Liz Prince’s imaginative designs for “Queen of the Goths” — especially an alluring, deconstructed hoop skirt for Miss Kharatian.

The well-known choreographer Stephen Petronio loads his “deCapulet” with interesting movement using bits of the Prokofiev score, all somewhat overshadowed by his approach to “Romeo and Juliet.” He focuses on a recent book, “Letters to Juliet,” contemporary letters addressed to Shakespeare’s ancient heroine in Verona. They prove a modern take on the kind of difficulty love finds in its path today. In my experience, words tend to trump — or at least distract from — dance movement, although Miss Armitage’s “Hamlet” is the exception. Dancers Luis Torres and Kara Cooper speak the words while Brianne Bland, Jade Payette, Mr. Jordan and Mr. Nelson dance the messages.

Matthew Neenan choreographed a proper closer for the program with his “Quick Bright Things,” offering a tenuous connection to “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” His dance gives the evening a breezy dance-y conclusion, aided by a brightly rhythmic score (from the soundtrack of the recent film “Little Children.”) It calls for alert, zestful performances, danced with charm by Elizabeth Gaither and Mr. Torres along with a quartet of other performers from the company and school.

The other works on the program are less remarkable, but they all have virtues.

Brian Reeder’s “The Sorrow of Lady C” has a cinematic air, intriguing at first, but it turns into a dumb show as one after another — Tybalt, Romeo and Juliet — collapse and die by dagger or poison. Laura Urgelles and Diana Albrecht as Lady Capulet and Juliet make an affecting impression.

“Lovers Speak,” set to music by Henry Purcell that’s more dramatic than the action, is Matjash Mrozewski’s abstract impression of young lovers and illuminated by a vibrant performance by Brianne Bland partnered by Zachary Hackstock as her lover.

Cathy Mason’s “Whispers” creates convincing tensions played compellingly by Mr. Jordan as Hamlet, Elizabeth Gaither as his mother and Mr. Hartley as his father’s troubled ghost, but it needs greater focus.

The Washington Ballet’s “7 X 7” continues Tuesday with a nearly sold out run through May 20.

***

WHAT: Washington Ballet in “7 X 7”

WHEN:Today at 4 and 8 p.m., tomorrow at 1 and 5:30 p.m., continuing Tuesday through May 20 at various hours

WHERE: Washington Ballet’s England Studio Theater, 3515 Wisconsin Ave. NW

TICKETS: $60

PHONE: 202/397-7328

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