- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

"Journey Home," the ambitious collaboration between the Washington Ballet and Sweet Honey in the Rock, represents a noble effort to meld the two worlds they represent the classical technique and structure of ballet and the earthy vibrancy of music with black American roots.

Both groups performed with wholehearted vigor at the world premiere of "Journey" Thursday night in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, and at times the presentation rose to expressive heights.

The ballet's beginning is striking. Dancers hold large blue kitelike squares designed by visual artist Sam Gilliam, another of the project's distinguished collaborators. The performers slowly raise and lower the squares to a wavelike, hypnotic effect, then part and exit.

Alone onstage is a single dancer, Jason Hartley, the protagonist whose life story is the subject of "Journey Home."

He moves with gripping intensity, his body rising and falling as if carried along on the crest of music as members of Sweet Honey in the Rock arrayed on a low platform at the back of the stage and dressed in shades of red and yellow sing "Motherless Chil'."

Erin Mahoney, a nurturing mother figure, appears at the back of the stage as the music reaches its climax. Mr. Hartley runs, jumps into her arms and clings to her. She cradles this muscular man with a powerful force of her own.

Singers and dancers do not match this degree of emotional fervor again until the end of the ballet, when the protagonist's adventures are coming to an end and the whole community of singers and dancers becomes caught up in a celebration of his life.

The Sweet Honey singers, each one of them a vibrant mover, come into the dancers' circle, and the two groups interact the singers belt out "When I Rise," and the dancers, singly or as a group, respond to them with spontaneous, delighted gusto. It is a rapturous moment.

After their final performances here at the Kennedy Center, singers and dancers will go on tour. As they perform together across the country, their interaction probably will become even freer.

"Journey Home" provides other moments to savor the communal feeling of "Denko," with the dancers moving in a supportive circle; a sustained sculptural duet danced eloquently by Laura Urgelles and Alvaro Palau in "Breaths"; the energy that exploded in "Still Gotta Get Up in the Morning"; and the starlit beauty of "Long Journey Home," with snow slowly drifting down.

However, parts of "Journey Home" look like a work in progress. Aside from his committed dancing, Mr. Hartley's role as the hero of this pilgrimage is only sketchily indicated. He needs a clearer role in transitional passages.

Other important contributors to "Journey Home" are librettist Noman Allen, costume designers Vandal and Fontella, and lighting director Kevin Meek.

"Journey Home" brings together black American songs and ballet in a rich way in its best moments, but in several sections a disconnect happened between the earthy, gutsy sounds of the Sweet Honey singers and repeated passages of dancers doing multiple pirouettes.

A duet for the admirable dancers Michele Jimenez and Runqiao Du was overly fussy and busy.

The remarkable dancers of the Washington Ballet are capable of more than that. Clear proof was seen earlier in the program with Trey McIntyre's "Blue Until June," a work commissioned for the company.

In Mr. McIntyre's bittersweet picture of the hazardous path of romantic relationships, the dancers showed their dramatic capability with bodies that were used with the strength and mobility of modern dance, flavored with wit and split-second timing. It was a bravura performance.

The exemplary cast included Brianne Bland, Cortney Palomo, Heather Perry, Boris Serebryakov and, especially, Jared Nelson, Miss Mahoney and Mr. Hartley.

Also on the program was Ben Stevenson's "Three Preludes," set to music by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is an interesting variation on Jerome Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," with its picture of romantic interlude in a ballet studio.

The company's principal guest artists, Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, made a compelling drama of the pas de deux.

Miss McKerrow moves with a burnished, golden glow. Her dancing is pure but with a passion in her beautiful, restrained phrasing.

The Rachmaninoff "Preludes" were played onstage by Brad Hull.

Earlier in the week, the Washington Ballet celebrated its 25th anniversary with a program of tributes and dancing that was a model of how such celebrations should go. It was a gala evening with first lady Laura Bush and her mother in attendance.

The tributes to Mary Day, who founded the company, were heartfelt, and the dancing, which poured forth in selections short but sweet, displayed the depth and range of the company.

After appearances by some of the promising students from the Washington School of Ballet, Miss Jimenez and Mr. Du performed an excerpt from "Three Preludes," danced with youthful ardor.

Another excerpt, led by Miss Bland and Mr. Nelson, was well-chosen: It was "In the Glow of the Night," choreographed by the late Choo-San Goh, who defined the company's style for more than a decade.

The estimable "Blue Until June" was performed by the same dancers who appeared on the company's regular program Thursday evening.

To conclude, Miss McKerrow gave a luminous performance of the Act II pas de deux in "Giselle." Ethan Stiefel, a fellow star of hers at American Ballet Theatre, was her attentive partner and brought finely wrought dancing to his solo passages.

The performance concluded with the company giving a brilliant performance of the final section of George Balanchine's "Four Temperaments."


***

WHAT: The Washington Ballet and Sweet Honey in the Rock in "Journey Home"

WHERE: Kennedy Center, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

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

TICKETS: $32 to $55

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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