- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

One of Antony Tudor's greatest works, "Dark Elegies," is the centerpiece of the Washington Ballet's not-to-be-missed program being danced this weekend at the Kennedy Center.
The company rises to the challenge of Mr. Tudor's starkly beautiful and moving meditation on loss and bereavement, set to Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children)."
Matching the deep sense of shared humanity of "Dark Elegies" but in a totally different vein is Paul Taylor's joyous "Esplanade," danced to Bach violin concertos.
Amid such inspired company, Twyla Tharp's frisky "Brief Fling," with its stop-and-start pastiche of a score by Michael Colombier and Percy Grainger, looks merely clever.
The Washington Ballet dancers showed their growing artistry and versatility earlier this week in the way they plunged into the demands of three different styles in this program, called "Icons."
Miss Tharp's combination of ballet and postmodernism is difficult technically and designed to let the audience know that. Mr. Tudor's movements look deceptively simple but require strong control to give them a sustained flow and an artist's understanding and concentration to bring meaning to his elegiac tone. Mr. Taylor's "Esplanade" calls for high energy and reckless abandon, most of which the dancers delivered in spades.
The company's inspired performance of "Dark Elegies" was a reminder of the critical role played in ballet revivals by the stager in this case Sallie Wilson, who worked closely with Mr. Tudor and was responsible for the Washington Ballet's fine account of the choreographer's "Pillar of Fire" last season.
Also enhancing the profound mood of "Dark Elegies" were the performances of guest artists John Gardner and Amanda McKerrow, who also danced under Mr. Tudor. These three dedicated professionals created a spellbinding atmosphere onstage; the audience's rapt attention was a testament to their success.
With Miss McKerrow and Mr. Gardner as inspiration, the rest of the cast matched the tightly controlled anguish. Erin Mahoney was excellent in the first solo with her rise from the floor en pointe, and Jason Hartley was eloquent in his dance of grief. Michele Jimenez brought a subdued poignancy to her mourning.
Jared Nelson was stunning in the final solo, his body shooting into the air, taunt with despair.
The ensemble passages that come between solos remind us of Emily Dickinson's words, "After great pain a formal feeling comes." The rest of the cast, admirably sustaining the mood of the work, included April Daly, Sona Kharatian, Carmen Ramos, Morgann Rose and Charles Pregger, one of several welcome new male dancers this season.
The two backdrops lonelylooking land and water landscapes and the spare, peasant-style costumes were on loan from American Ballet Theatre.
The only thing missing was a live baritone singing the Mahler songs. His presence would have brought a special immediacy and warmth to the stage; expensive though this would be, the dancing is so good it deserves nothing less.
The program opener, "Brief Fling," is a big company work, and its conceit is to contrast classical ballet and postmodern dance, then mix them up until they achieve some form of synthesis. It is busy, full of exits and entrances, with the dancers signaling the camp they are in by their costumes.
The lead classical couple, Miss Jimenez and Runqiao Du, are in blue tutu and tights respectively, and have to scramble to pull off all the pyrotechnics that Miss Tharp has given them. Then along come Miss Mahoney, Chip Coleman and Jared Nelson, in raggle-taggle green, to shrug and slouch their way through some postmodern Tharpisms, and finally a fusion quartet consisting of Brianne Bland, Laura Urgelles, Jonathan Jordan and Boris Serebryakov, who combine pointe work and loose-limbed gestures. It is all mildly amusing, but at times it seems almost paint-by-numbers in its overly schematized maneuvers.
The program's rousing finale, "Esplanade," is a repeat and well worth repeating from last season. It was staged then by former Paul Taylor dancer Kenneth Tosti, and a few discrepancies have crept in this season, but the company is at home with its infectious high spirits and warm human interaction.
A distraction last year that is repeated now is the women's decision to let their long hair fly unfettered, adding a new, unnecessary choreographic element. They look sloppy with hair hanging in front of their faces.
Mr. Taylor's choreography is a killer in terms of its high energy. Occasionally the dancers allowed themselves to show their fatigue as they made their exits, but, in general, the cast was a delight. It included the Misses Mahoney, Urgelles, Bland and Kharatian, Heather Perry, Kathleen Breen Combes, Mr. Coleman and Alvaro Palau. Special kudos to Mr. Nelson for his unbridled exuberance.
As this concert reminds us, the Washington Ballet, under Septime Webre's galvanizing direction, is reaching new artistic heights.
With all the riches on this program, it may seem churlish to issue a caveat: Lumping great works on one program such as this and recent pop works on another gives the impression that the company has a split personality. What it really has is versatility, and most of us celebrate that.
Sometimes, however, one program seems designed for a young audience and/or people who don't really like ballet, and another, such as this one, for traditionalists and people who think of dance not just as entertainment but as one of the noblest of expressions.
Especially for those of us who believe the latter, it would be nice to have one ballet with such high aspirations on every program.

*** 1/2
WHAT: Washington Ballet
WHEN: Today at 7:30 p.m., tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
TICKETS: $40 to $55
PHONE: 202/467-4600

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