Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The Washington Ballet opens its fall season tonight with a demanding breakthrough ballet: William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.”

“Middle” is a major step for the company, part of an evening that offers an unusual number of company premieres, including “Firebird” by Robert Weiss; “Nocturne Monologue,” a solo choreographed by the company’s star dancer, Jason Hartley; and “The Poet Acts,” a new pas de deux by company director Septime Webre.

The only non-premiere is a revival of “Momentum,” set to Prokofiev’s first Piano Concerto, a company signature piece created by the late Choo-San Goh.

The challenge of mounting this ambitious program has produced a greater-than-usual buzz of activity in the company’s Wisconsin Avenue studios. Mr. Webre works in an upper studio setting his new pas de deux on two soloists; ballet master John Goding, who worked closely with Mr. Goh, rehearses the cast of “Momentum,” following on the heels of “Firebird,” being polished by Jeff Edwards after Mr. Weiss’ team set his ballet.

One rehearsal follows on the heels of another. The dancers, leotards soaked with sweat, do quick changes and show up for their next rehearsal dried off and prepped to go. In contrast to the baggy sweat pants, leg warmers and multiple scruffy layers seen on most companies when they rehearse, the Washington Ballet dancers look sleek in their colorful outfits.

There is much focus on Mr. Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” a work originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet. The American-born choreographer may not be a household name in his native land, but he has a huge reputation in Europe, where he has worked for the past 30 years, the past 19 as director of the Frankfurt Ballet in Germany.

Glen Tuggle, ballet master at Mr. Forsythe’s company, has set “Middle” many times — for the San Francisco Ballet, the Royal Ballet in London, the Royal Danish Ballet and the Swedish Ballet.

He has spent the past four weeks with the Washington dancers, rehearsing them five hours a day. Sandy-haired and intense, he is endlessly inventive in introducing the cast to the ballet’s intricate challenges.

“I basically set it the first two weeks,” Mr. Tuggle says after rehearsal, “and we’ve spent the rest of the time polishing — working on musicality, head, arms, width of movement. It’s very classically based, but Billy Forsythe takes the classical positions and stretches them almost to the point that you don’t recognize them anymore.

“Take the classical positions,” he continues. “Second position is much wider than the dancers are used to. I have to be careful with the ladies, to build the strength in the ankles and inner thighs.”

Another Forsythe characteristic is the tension he sets up between upper and lower body. “Billy adores the coordination between arms and legs and the use of twisting and epaulement — the carriage of arms and shoulders and head,” Mr. Tuggle says. “It makes the women look fantastic, very feminine and at the same time extremely powerful.”

A third Forsythe demand is extreme speed, and here, Mr. Tuggle says, Americans are right at home. “American dancers are trained for speed,” he says. “That’s the influence of Balanchine.”

The Washington dancers are confronting the different stylistic demands they are facing in the program with marked enthusiasm. After rehearsal, Brianne Bland and Michele Jimenez, who are alternating in the title role in “Firebird” and a major part in “Middle,” talked about the two ballets and their special demands.

Miss Bland says that working in the extreme style of “Middle” took some getting used to, but she found “Firebird” even more daunting. “‘Firebird’ is so fast right away from the beginning that it’s a killer. At least in ‘Middle’ you can catch your breath.”

“‘Middle’ requires very correct technique,” Miss Jimenez says, “and everything is done fast, so it’s very extreme, and it pushes the dancers to the limit. Musically, it’s hard to coordinate because the music is so different — it’s just boom and crash and tinkle, tinkle.

“It’s an adventure,” she says, “coming into work every day and having to use my body differently.”

Both dancers are also featured in “Momentum,” and Miss Bland is also creating the female role in Mr. Webre’s new duet. Her partner is Jared Nelson. A slim blond dancer, Mr. Nelson might look fragile at first glance, but not only does he streak through striking solo parts, he is also a powerful partner, shooting his ballerina overhead or running to catch her as she swoons backward.

Originally Mr. Webre was slated to choreograph “Firebird,” but last summer he accepted the board’s offer to take on the added responsibilities of executive director. Squeezed for time, he turned to Mr. Weiss, director of the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, N.C., who had recently created a version of “Firebird” that Mr. Webre admired, and asked him to stage the work for his Washington company.

It’s hard to keep the choreographer-director out of the studio, though, and Mr. Webre decided to create a smaller work, a pas de deux to the Philip Glass music for the film “The Hours.” The theme of his duet is the Annunciation — “someone dealing with news she doesn’t want to hear,” as Mr. Webre explained it.

“The music is very abstract, but of course, in a movie you end up with very specific images, like Meryl Streep’s face,” Mr. Webre noted. “If this duet turns out well, I’d like to make a full, 30-minute ballet of it eventually.”

In the rehearsal, the brief pas de deux was full of continuous unfolding movement, with Miss Bland and Mr. Nelson sweeping across the stage, their bodies curving together. At one point, Mr. Nelson drops Miss Bland from a high lift, runs away from her, then turns and dashes to her side to catch her as she falls backward.

Mr. Webre wanted more drama in the movement. “You’re doing the cavalier thing,” he told Mr. Nelson, “making sure she’s all right before you run away. Just let her go, it’s more exciting that way.”

WHAT: The Washington Ballet in “Firebird” and “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.”

WHEN: Tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $29 to $80

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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