- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

The arts struggled to survive in some parts of the country, but dance in Washington experienced a banner year.
Amid the richness and variety of the dance scene, three of the most arresting developments this year were the arrival of Michael Kaiser as president of the Kennedy Center, the growing strength of the Washington Ballet and the eloquence of Asian-based dance in companies from abroad and American groups influenced by an Asian aesthetic.
Mr. Kaiser is not a dancer, choreographer or troupe director, yet his arrival here thrust dance and all the arts into high relief.
He began his tenure by announcing a $50 million grant to the Kennedy Center from Alberto Vilar. To bookend this, Mr. Kaiser wound up 2001 by attracting another large grant $10 million from Catherine Reynolds with no strings attached. Her earlier gift to the Smithsonian Institution caused controversy because it came with so many strings.
Money for the arts is essential, of course, and Mr. Kaiser excels at fund raising, but the crucial element is the use he makes of the money.
It is too early to tell what kind of an artistic profile Mr. Kaiser will give the Kennedy Center. So far he has tended toward big, international gestures bringing the Bolshoi Opera here next June to appear in a one-night-only gala with the Bolshoi Ballet and planning yearly appearances of both the Kirov Ballet and the Kirov Opera.
He also wants to make the center a creative force and has scheduled an important Stephen Sondheim festival and thrown the center's resources into planning a more ambitious role for the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.
The Kennedy Center has sponsored an intermittent, ad hoc company of the great ballerina for several years. This fall, her greater resources could be seen in the size of her repertoire and the higher quality and number of dancers. She drew from them an intensity, spontaneity and musicality that reflected her own performing style.
Mr. Kaiser has committed to yearly engagements by the Farrell group. He also projects national, perhaps even international, tours of the company beginning in two years.
Using the center's resources to support a sustained, significant ballet company headed by an already legendary Balanchine dancer would increase Washington's importance as a dance center and hearten those who are concerned that choreographer George Balanchine's legacy is faltering in New York. Miss Farrell and her company are basically a New York company.
A second important dance happening this year has been the growth of the Washington Ballet. The company plays a unique role here a home team whose director of two years, Septime Webre, has brought it a surge of vitality.
The company has been modest by design for most of its 26 years, but Mr. Webre's plans are more ambitious. Although the troupe sometimes emphasizes energy over finesse and its classical side needs attention, it has tackled ambitious repertoire this year with impressive results.
In February it danced an exemplary program: Mr. Balanchine's neoclassical "Concerto Barocco, " Antony Tudor's dramatic "Pillar of Fire" and Paul Taylor's exciting "Esplanade. " All except the Balanchine were danced with depth and understanding. Several of Mr. Webre's ballets were featured during the rest of the year "Peter Pan, " designed for family entertainment, and his full-length "Romeo and Juliet" and sultry "Carmen. " His choreography gives the company plenty of glitter and pizazz all the more reason to balance them with more classically oriented works.
Mr. Webre also is giving the Washington Ballet a larger role in the local community. For instance, he has started classes for inner-city children and serves as a welcoming presence onstage during his programs for children.
He also brings in other Washington artists musicians and painters as collaborators. He created highly imaginative choreography for a play produced at Arena Stage, "Coyote Builds North America."
The Kennedy Center, which is increasingly hospitable to local modern dancers on its Millennium Stage and its smaller theaters and underwrites the National Symphony to the tune of $9 million a year, gives little to the Washington Ballet, aside from offering it booking times.
There is a cautionary tale here for those of us who watched the National Ballet, our promising local company founded by Jean Riddell, disband two years after the Kennedy Center opened. The center brought in an array of national and international ballet companies and, while admittedly its responsibility for the National Ballet's folding was limited, Washington lost a fine company of its own.
A third interesting development this year has been the expressive impact of Asian or Asian-oriented dance companies that appeared here. The groups represented tremendous variety; several sprang from the stark, contorted shapes of butoh, an approach to dance born in post-Hiroshima Japan.
Butoh-inspired Dairakudakan, a Japanese company founded by Akaji Maro, arrived first. Highly theatrical and deliberately shocking, the troupe provided a bracing gust of outrageous imagery and movement performed with wild abandon or intense, slow-motion concentration in February.
Cambodian dancers performed traditional dance of the Far East in its pure form this fall and created a mesmerizing spell. This entrancing ancient art form, with dancers' fingers flexed backward toward the wrists and bodies held in a diagonal tilt, was almost obliterated by the Khmer Rouge takeover in the 1970s when the dancing was suppressed and dancers were executed. Today, it seems symbolic of the resilience of the human spirit.
The most beautiful example of art growing out of the butoh movement is the work of Eiko and Koma. These two dancers, born in Japan but working in New York for more than two decades, have honed a delicate, highly individual dance theater. They explore the natural world with heightened sensitivity. Their works have names like "Land" and "River, " and this year they performed "Snow, " one of the most exquisite dances I have ever seen. Their slow-moving, concentrated work digs into the essence of their subject, and the stage was enveloped in a mysterious glow as the two moved under softly falling snow made out of small floating feathers.
Their miniature works are not for everyone. Requiring the same concentration one brings to a poem or a haiku, they reward the looking.
Shen Wei, who works with a stageful of dancers and hails from China, where he was immersed in the acrobatic use of the body in Chinese opera, creates movement that has a superficial similarity to that of Eiko and Koma. He shares their sense of serenity, but his intent is different. Out of his background as a painter and a student of Western art, he fashions a painterly scene: His male and female dancers are naked to the waist, with their bodies painted white and their hair sometimes colored a theatrical red or black.
He recently moved to New York and is yet another example of the meeting of East and West.
The East-West connection also is strong in the work of Dana Tai Soon Burgess, a local artist who was born and brought up in this country but feels an affinity to Eastern dance through his Korean mother. Recent travels and study in Pakistan, China and Korea have nourished this. His work has the most hybrid feel of all: the use of flexed feet, bent legs and expressively curved hands flavoring a basic technique of modern dance.
Mr. Burgess unveiled his full-length "Dance Trilogy" this month at the Kennedy Center, which commissioned part of it. The work is both serene and theatrical: Its lighting, costumes and large sculptures by artist John Dreyfuss add to its appeal, although the sculptures and dance seemed scarcely related in the last two sections.
This season also saw a record-breaking nine weeks of ballet by large companies at the Kennedy Center, including spring and December seasons by the American Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem. The Royal Ballet also made a rare appearance here in one of the world's most charming ballets, "La Fille Mal Gardee. " Making an even rarer appearance was the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in "Giselle" and "Coppelia. " The Cuban group revealed a company somewhat musty and rigid but outstanding for its held balances, strong technique and joie de vivre. Another foreign troupe, the Universal Ballet from Korea, also appeared, in a sumptuous staging of "La Bayadere."
The Miami Ballet, directed by former ballet star Edward Villella, gave a triumphant performance in this busy ballet season. The company dances Mr. Balanchine's work as well as anyone, with a zest, crispness and musicality that come straight from their director.
When the Miami group performed the Rubies section from Mr. Balanchine's full-length "Jewels, " it rose to the challenge of Igor Stravinsky's challenging rhythms. The revelation, though, was the company's dancing of the Emeralds section of that ballet, with its very different demands. The melting Gabriel Faure music was matched by bodies that swooned and dipped and stretched with luscious abandon.
This vibrant year offered many more memorable moments:
The ambitious five-year project, "Aurora/2001, " by one of Washington's movers and shakers, Maida Withers. She mounted her multimedia work with an international cast of dancers, musical collaborators from Norway and a computer artist from Brazil. Performances took place in Norway and in Washington at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.
The riveting Companhia de Danca Deborah Colker from Brazil, a wildly original dance group from Brazil in "Casa, " expanding our idea of how a house looks and what goes on inside it.
Richard Move's hilariously campy yet touching tribute to the "mother of them all, " Martha Graham, at Dance Place this fall.
The continuing success of Dance Place in bringing the best of Washington dance and interesting groups from around the country and abroad to a devoted audience in a wonderfully warm and intimate setting.
The continued growth of Joy of Motion on upper Wisconsin Avenue into another intimate venue presenting emerging and established dance artists.
The new state-of-the-art theaters in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, which brought the talented Susan Marshall & Company this fall. This new dance facility joins the George Mason University Center for the Arts in expanding the circumference of the arts presented in the area.
Conspicuously absent in 2001: Mark Morris and his splendid company. He is a regular at George Mason (although not in this calendar year), but it is high time we see him again at the Kennedy Center after the smashing success of his "L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato."

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