- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

''Carmen," the headstrong symbol of a life lived with passionate amorality, arrived at the Kennedy Center this week in a world premiere created by Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre.

The Washington Ballet launched its 25th anniversary season Thursday evening with the provocative new work. The ballet is part of a strong program that includes George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" and Choo-San Goh's "In the Glow of the Night."

With "Carmen," Mr. Webre takes a new look at the Prosper Merimee story that inspired Georges Bizet's opera and subsequently a stream of ballets, including a popular one by the French choreographer Roland Petit.

Another version was created by Alberto Alonso for the great Russian ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. The dancer's husband, Rodion Shchedrin, made an arrangement of Bizet's music, and it is this score that the new "Carmen" uses an idiosyncratic score that strives mightily to be modern.

Mr. Webre's greatest strength is as a conceptual artist, and his "Carmen" is full of striking theatrical ideas.

The stage is dominated by bold sets designed by Holly Highfill that refer directly to Pablo Picasso, his cubism, his eroticism and his fascination with bulls. Miss Highfill's use of blacks and grays gives a cool modernistic look to the work.

The ballet is somewhat less successful in its costume design. The initial military costumes for the men have an awkward look, and the toreador's costume makes the dancer look heavy even when airborne. But the designer, Vandal, working closely with Mr. Webre, has concocted a vivid series of black-and-white costumes punctuated by the blood red of Carmen's ruffled skirt for the rest of the ballet.

Mr. Webre's choreography is cool-hot, impressionistic and, as he himself describes it, "streamlined." This "Carmen" has the characteristics we have seen in several major works by Mr. Webre, including his "Carmina Burana" and "Peter Pan." It has a lot of energy, a lot of action, a lot of turns and a great deal of craft.

Any "Carmen" depends heavily on its heroine, of course, and Michele Jimenez looks born to the part (she hails from the Dominican Republic), with her beautiful stage face; her clean, strong technique; and her natural vivacity as a performer.

Her role in "Carmen" doesn't leave much room for a nuanced characterization or even a fully developed sexiness. The work is so full of high-key, demanding movement that subtlety gets lost in the process. This was true also of Jason Hartley's fiery dancing as the toreador and Jared Nelson's conflicted, lovesick Don Jose.

Mr. Webre has transformed the traditional role of Micaela, Don Jose's innocent childhood sweetheart, into a Lady in White, played by Brianne Bland. As a kind of pure, spiritual love that Don Jose longs for even as he pursues the tempestuous Carmen, the Lady in White alters the putative central focus of the ballet. The dramatic conflict, at least in theory, is now in Don Jose's mind a replay of the theme in the ballet "Don Quixote," in which the Don's search for an ideal, virginal woman is unreasonably projected onto the boisterous Kitri.

The director's originality is strongest not so much in the set encounters between the protagonists but in a striking tavern scene in which, suspending the music, he has his dancers beat out intricate rhythms with their hands, feet and stools, while two dancers weave in intricate counterpoint. It brought down the house.

The choreography for the corps here and in the final scene was some of the most imaginative in the ballet and provided some tough, spitfire dancing impressively delivered by Erin Mahoney, sometimes accompanied by a sinuous Heather Perry.

Mr. Webre has taken a well-worn story and come up with an interpretation that provides a showcase for a company strengthened by promising newcomers, some of whom will step into principal roles this weekend.

While the novelty rested with "Carmen," the dancing highlight of the program was Mr. Balanchine's "Four Temperaments" to a score by Paul Hindemith. (A major Balanchine lesson: Start with good music.) The 1946 opus is one of his seminal works.

The Washington Ballet has danced "Four Temperaments" before, the last time almost a decade ago. But the current company seemingly revels in its clean, neoclassic challenges. The work is a masterpiece of formal invention, with its core movements set out in the three memorable pas de deux that open the ballet, danced opening night by Miss Bland and Alvaro Palau, Miss Perry and Boris Serebryakov, and Laura Urgelles and Chip Coleman.

Mr. Hartley stretched to meet the bold but refined challenges of the Melancholic section; his prodigious technique is sometimes called on as an end in itself but here it was placed at the service of a marvelous variation.

The soaring Sanguinic variation was led by Miss Jimenez and Runqiao Du, who has just returned from dancing principal roles with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. The experience has brought a new, welcome electricity and warmth to his performing style. Miss Jimenez's vivacity was oddly misplaced here, although her incisive dancing was an asset.

A special treat was seeing Albert Evans, an important member of the New York City Ballet, make a guest appearance in the Phlegmatic variation. He is weightier than in the past, but he danced with serene authority and emphasized gravity rather than wit.

The Choleric variation was brilliantly set forth by Miss Mahoney, and the finale of "Four Temperaments," one of the most thrilling moments in ballet with its confluence of music and movement, sailed off into ballet heaven.

Mr. Goh's "In the Glow of the Night" was staged with sensitive understanding by John Goding, who danced in Mr. Goh's original production, and Mr. Goh's close associate, Janek Schergen.

It was poignant to see the Washington Ballet, now composed almost entirely of dancers who never knew the choreographer, taking so full-heartedly to his spare but sensuous movements. The dancers include guest artist Amanda McKerrow of American Ballet Theatre, who began her illustrious career dancing works created for her by Mr. Goh in this company. Her seamless dancing was matched by her partner, guest artist John Gardner.


***

WHAT: Washington Ballet's "Carmen"

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today and 2:30 p.m. tomorrow

WHERE: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $40 to $55

PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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