- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2001

The Washington Ballet is in the throes of mounting a program that shines a spotlight on American dance as a pre-eminent creative force in 20th-century art. It includes works by three of the century's greatest choreographers — George Balanchine, Antony Tudor and Paul Taylor.

Their works will be seen in five performances that begin Wednesday and continue through an April 1 matinee at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

The assignment is daunting for the company's dancers — probably the greatest challenge the company has faced in a single program.

Skilled professionals who have worked closely with each choreographer have been at the Washington Ballet's studios on upper Wisconsin Avenue for weeks and have been teaching steps, explaining the choreographers' motivations and guiding the quality of the movements.

The works they are teaching offer dancers and audience a tremendous stylistic range; each is vividly different in technique and aesthetic intent. All these dance ideas are played out on the performers' bodies, and at times the going is rough.

For instance, in a particularly intriguing bit of programming, the evening will begin with George Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" (1940), set to Johann Sebastian Bach's glorious Double Violin Concerto, and end with Paul Taylor's "Esplanade" (1975), a very different and equally inspired reaction to the same music.

Mr. Balanchine's crystalline ballet emphasizes the formal beauty of the piece. Mr. Taylor goes for the music's vitality and thrust, with dancers running across the stage at breakneck speed, hurtling to the floor in crash landings and leaping across space to land in a partner's arms.

The slides they do barefoot across the floor in the Taylor work bring calluses to the balls of their feet. For the Balanchine ballet, they have to shove their sore feet into pointe shoes to do the demanding footwork.

Dancers are used to aching bodies, but with this program they're finding them aching in new places. They complain among themselves in a rueful, good-natured way. Then, one of them remarked during a rehearsal, "But they're such great works that it's worth it."

The first ballet Mr. Tudor created in this country, "Pillar of Fire" (1941), also is on the program; this is the first time the company has danced a Tudor ballet. The choreographer based the central role of Hagar on Nora Kaye, who became the leading dramatic ballerina of her day. Miss Kaye, who died in 1987 at age 67, was 21 years old when Mr. Tudor plucked her from the corps to dance the role.

Nine years later, Mr. Tudor spotted another young dancer, Sallie Wilson, an 18-year-old member of the Ballet Theatre (now the American Ballet Theatre) corps who was about to be dismissed. He rescued her by telling the directors, "Keep her. I want to use her."

Miss Wilson went on to become an important interpreter of Mr. Tudor's work and ruled supreme as Hagar during the 1960s and 1970s.

She has been in Washington for five weeks, working on "Pillar of Fire" with the Washington Ballet dancers and the group's two permanent guest artists, Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner.

Miss McKerrow worked with Mr. Tudor as a principal dancer with ABT, and he coached her in the role of the younger sister. She is relishing the challenge of dancing Hagar for the first time.

"This is a great opportunity to work with Sallie," Miss McKerrow says. "She knows so well what Tudor wants."

Septime Webre, Washington Ballet's artistic director, acknowledges that Miss McKerrow's presence is one of the reasons he chose "Pillar of Fire."

"Having Amanda McKerrow here is a great gift," he says, "and Hagar is a role she had never tackled. I was looking for a few things this year that would really interest her."

Miss Wilson is conveying much more than Mr. Tudor's steps and style in her coaching.

"Tudor always made us know much more than what's happening onstage," she says. "He made a whole libretto for what's happening in the house. He told me that Hagar had to do all the dishes and make all the beds, even the little sister's bed. When the older sister comes home from church, she goes to her room and takes out her box lined with tissue paper and puts in her kid gloves, and puts her hat in the hatbox and puts it on the shelf."

Mr. Tudor found strong and different ways to express inner repression: a hand raised slowly to the temple, a crumple to the floor followed by Hagar flexing her feet on pointe and rising slowly and unaided.

Dance, an ephemeral art, rests on the memories and understanding of dancers who pass on their knowledge. They include Miss Wilson; Kenneth Tosti, who is working with Mr.Taylor's "Esplanade"; and Victoria Simon, who is rehearsing the dancers in Mr. Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" and "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux."

Mr. Tosti, who danced with the Paul Taylor company for 12 years, is bringing Mr. Taylor's modern dance moves to dancers trained in a very different way in "Esplanade." Mr. Taylor, who delights in ruffling ballet's feathers, said in a recent interview that ballet concentrates on moving arms and legs, and the dancers end up looking like hollow people.Strong muscles of the torso are what interest him, he said.

"I've been around 'Esplanade' for 25 years and I'm still interested in it," Mr. Tosti says. "That says a lot for it. It works on different levels. It does what only a dance can do — it's not a story. It just taps into some part of you that no other art form can tap into."

Mr. Tosti says he tries to communicate the quality that each step has to have. "The great thing about Paul's work is it isn't just one thing. You can make up your own story. If you commit yourself fully to the movement, the music, to the athleticism, to the humanity of someone else, it will inform you. That's what it is to be an artist as well as being a dancer."

The unusual degree of camaraderie and trust that Mr. Taylor has built into "Esplanade" begins to develop under Mr. Tosti's guidance.

"You can't look like you're doing choreography," he tells the dancers. "When it begins, you're just standing, facing the audience, and then all you do is walk. The more you can feel part of this community the less lonely you'll feel out there.

WHAT: The Washington BalletWHERE: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through March 31 and 2:30 p.m. April 1TICKETS: $32.50 to $50PHONE: 202/467-4600

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