- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Washington Ballet, sometimes given to hyperbole, is dancing a program modestly called “Genius!” The surprise is that it delivers on this bold claim in every way.

If “change” is the new buzzword in the arts as well as politics, this engagement has it all.

It begins with the company’s new venue, Sidney Harman Hall. With its soaring proscenium and unobstructed sightlines, the 775-seat theater instantly becomes the city’s most exciting space for dance.

Add to that a program with works by three of the top choreographers working today — Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon and Twyla Tharp — and the rare pleasure of live music sensitively played by pianist Glenn Sales for the first two and in the third a recording of Ol’ Blue Eyes belting out the songs for Miss Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” and you have a dream program.

One thing these three very different choreographers have in common is their musicality. Mr. Morris’ talent is his keen sense of musical structure and the imaginative way he plays with his score — Virgil Thomson’s “Etudes for Piano.” A gift for musical nuance is part of Mr. Wheeldon’s arsenal, seen in his sensitive response to the contrasting romantic songs of Frederic Chopin and rueful ones of Kurt Weil — their Bertolt Brecht lyrics belted out by mezzo-soprano Shelley Waite, who was born to sing them. Miss Tharp’s innate connection to all kinds of popular music — Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, the Beach Boys, Billy Joel — leads to her delving into the magic of Mr. Sinatra’s voice.

The most heartwarming element of the evening, however — the spark that turns it all into a shining triumph — is the company’s brilliant dancing. Never has it looked so spirited, not only meeting technical challenges with elan, but reveling in the wit, drama and humor the choreography demands.

First among equals in this burst of excellence is Jonathan Jordan, who has long been a top classicist in the company. In this program, he seizes all challenges with gusto. For his solo in Mr. Morris’ “Drink to Me,” he sails into space, then twirls grandly into place, arms held proudly with a Spanish-tinged, slightly comical toreador flourish. He breezes through Mr. Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved,” gamboling lightheartedly with Brianne Bland, and in the sassy “Forget Domani” section of Miss Tharp’s work, with Morgann Rose as his partner, he gives a tongue-in-cheek exhibition of perpetual motion.

Mr. Jordan’s achievement was matched by everyone in the company, and it is amazing to see such growth across the board. The Wheeldon work demands intricate partnering, which undoubtedly will be more seamless by the end of the run.

In the past, the company has turned restlessly from one new ballet to another. Seeing a return of the demanding “Nine Sinatra Songs” in such splendid shape underscores how a work deepens with repetition. A series of duets, brightened with glamorous nightclub lighting, “Sinatra” opens with a swiftly ardent Runqiao Du in stylish pursuit of an alluring Elizabeth Gaither, followed by a lilting duet danced by Laura Urgelles and Alvaro Palau.

A highlight of an evening full of them comes next with Erin Mahoney-Du and Luis R. Torres in “One for My Baby,” an over-the-top scene of two inebriated, wildly acrobatic and deadpan-funny characters that brought down the house.

Jason Hartley and Miss Bland were wryly sophisticated in “Something Stupid,” Sona Kharatian and Chip Coleman elegant and lilting in “All the Way.”

The splendid performance is climaxed by the welcome return — this time as a guest artist — of Michele Jimenez, who appears earlier in the program with Mr. Torres in the searing climax of Mr. Wheeldon’s ballet. In contrast, Sinatra’s “That’s Life” carves out an epic battle of the sexes between Miss Jimenez and Jared Nelson, both fiercely impressive.

In addition to the dancers mentioned, lively performances came from Maki Onuki, Jade Payette, Zachary Hackstock, Aaron Jackson, Tamas Krizsa and Diana Albrecht.

****

WHAT: The Washington Ballet

WHEN: Today and tomorrow at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW

TICKETS: $30 to $80

PHONE: 202/547-1122

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