- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

With the Kennedy Center as its fulcrum and center President Michael Kaiser as the driving force, Washington has joined New York and San Francisco as the leading dance centers in this country.

We have annual visits from three of the world’s greatest companies — the Kirov Ballet from St. Petersburg, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. In a class with these groups, the outstanding San Francisco Ballet should be seen here on a more regular basis. Ditto the Miami City Ballet.

The Kennedy Center brings back ballet com-panies of excellence year after year. If only this same commitment to excellence marked its series for modern dance, the art form born and bred in this country.

We need to see the astounding creativity of the great modern-dance choreographers Paul Taylor and Mark Morris every year, not sporadically. The works they are creating are arguably tomorrow’s most precious heritage. What a shame it would be to be living in their time and miss any of it. (Mr. Morris has been appearing yearly at George Mason University, not compensation for his absence from the District.) It is great to see younger choreographers and foreign modern-dance groups in the series, but not at the cost of missing the work of these two masters.

Along with the re-emphasis on dance at the Kennedy Center, the local dance scene is charging ahead as never before. In quality of work, quantity of talented dancers and choreographers who have chosen to live here, growing audiences, and expansion of performance facilities, Washington dance has never been so vital as it is now.

The giant on the local scene is the Washington Ballet, which, under Septime Webre’s direction, has grown in a few short years from a fine chamber group into an innovative, ambitious company with its sights set on becoming a major player in town and around the country. Its million-dollar-plus production of “The Nutcracker,” which just finished a first season at the Warner Theatre, is a major step in this direction.

It’s considered a truism that the people who come once a year to see “The Nutcracker” don’t translate into an expanded audience for the rest of the repertoire, but I have a hunch that the new production’s sharp professionalism and lavish staging may lure new recruits.

The Washington Ballet’s position is unique. Good enough to be the major company in some cities, in Washington, it has to reckon with audiences that are seeing definitive performances of 19th- and 20th-century classics by the finest companies from around the world. So the local group tries to carve its own niche by commissioning new works and adding existing modern ballets by top-notch choreographers living and dead (Christopher Wheeldon, George Balanchine) while also daring to mount credible versions of such classics as “Coppelia” and “Giselle.” Claiming its right to dance the legendary 19th-century “Giselle” this fall was, in a way, its most daring venture; for a first effort, it was impressive.

The local modern-dance scene is bursting with talent. Liz Lerman and her Dance Exchange have had a national profile for a long time — in fact, Miss Lerman is better known in many areas around the country than she is here in her hometown.

Many other dancers, choreographers and directors are emerging, creating works that are attracting attention here and, increasingly, around the globe. Dana Tai Soon Burgess’ three State Department-sponsored tours of South America; Nejla Yatkin’s performances this year in Taiwan, Brazil and Colombia; Maida Withers’ series of visits to Russia; CityDance’s appearances in Poland and Lithuania: Washington dance is making its mark on the larger world.

Dance Place, the creative hub of the local modern-dance community, continues to expand its wide-ranging focus on performances, classes and outreach. Lively groups too numerous to mention fill its stage and attract diverse audiences week after week.

It has been joined in the past few years by new performance spaces and offerings: the fine series at George Mason, the exciting programs at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, the intimate theater at Joy of Motion and the renovated Lincoln Theatre.

The opening this month of Strathmore Hall, the most sublime concert hall in the Washington area, is a major boost. With CityDance as its resident dance group, offering dance classes in soaring, glass-walled, state-of-the-art studios, northern Bethesda is in for a transforming experience.

In the past, the Kennedy Center has virtually ignored the local dance scene. For the past several years, however, it has radically changed this dynamic, first with the advent of its nightly free Millennium Stage performances, which offer an opportunity for local groups to reach a new and broader audience, and second with its yearly commissioning of three new works by local choreographers.

Such service is a boon to the woefully underfunded local dance community. Funding is the one aspect of the dance scene here that calls out for improvement.

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