- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

With the Kennedy Center Opera House closed for repairs for most of 2003, the year was short on big, blockbuster dance events but made up for it in other significant ways. Foremost was the emergence of two locally-based artists who showed a power and imagination that are already leading them to important national recognition.

The two — Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Nejla Yatkin — are mature artists who have mounted impressive performances in Washington before, but 2003 was a breakthrough year for both. Mr. Burgess’ work is cool, delicate and restrained; Ms. Yatkin’s is hot and dramatic. Both favor simple, suggestive titles.

Mr. Burgess’ “Tracings,” seen in November at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, is poetry distilled on stage. It captures in subtle, abstract ways the experience of Koreans who began emigrating to this country 100 years ago. Mr. Burgess’ stage picture is hauntingly beautiful. It evokes the sense of loss, the spell of ancestral images set against the palimpsest of memory. The choreographer’s spare, ritualistic choreography is illuminated tellingly by Jennifer Tipton’s sensitive lighting, which evokes a feeling of time remembered, time suspended.

All the elements in a Burgess work converge in unusual harmony. In “Tracings” they included Aaron Leitko’s sound design, Jason Kao Hwang’s music and Judy Hansen’s pale simple costumes — all enhancing the serene movements danced by Mr. Burgess, Miyako Nitadori, Tati Valle-Riestra and, in a special cameo appearance, his mother Anna Kang Burgess.

Ms. Yatkin is a galvanizing presence on stage. Tall and long-limbed, she is a striking-looking dancer with a rich cultural background: a Turkish-American heritage, growing up in Germany exposed to a European aesthetic, and later absorbing the many strands of American modern dance.

Ms. Yatkin’s dramatic stage presence is only part of her arsenal. Her choreography, especially in her recent work, “Mosaic,” is bold, sensual and visually arresting. She designs the costumes she and her dancers wear, and they are particularly apt and eye-catching.

Most importantly, Ms. Yatkin is a serious artist who tackles important themes in a way that is highly intellectual but always vividly provocative and dramatic.

• Two other local dance groups made important gains this year: Paul Emerson’s CityDance Ensemble and Fabian Barnes’ Washington Reflections Dance Company.

CityDance is a dynamic repertory company that commissions work from some of Washington’s finest free-lance choreographers, including Vladimir Angelov, Kris O’Shee and Mr. Burgess (who has his own group).

The company has fielded evenings of dance films as well as stage performances, tours both regionally and abroad, and has in its future the promise of a splendid new home when the Strathmore Arts Center opens its performing hall a year from now.

The company has some fine works in its repertoire, but its latest performances at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater in October featured nothing but premieres — an ambitious concept. As with many groups, novelty seems to be an end in itself, although putting together a strong program would make for a more satisfying evening.

Washington Reflections, only a little over a year old, is driven by Mr. Barnes’ determination to create a worthy, black-oriented dance company in the nation’s capital. His vision has attracted community support for a group of promising dancers he is working to mold into a finished ensemble, and its first performances at the Lincoln Theatre this fall offered the prospect of good things to come. What the group needs — like most groups — is to develop first-rate, challenging choreography.

• Two dance masterpieces performed with white-hot intensity towered over the dance scene this year. One, Paul Taylor’s “Promethean Fire,” was brand new: it had its Washington premiere in April at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, danced by his company on a joint program with the Houston Ballet. The other, Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” was created in 1960. Although seen here dozens of times, the company’s still-fervent performances keep the work’s great soul and heart fresh and alive.

“Promethean Fire,” set to the music of Bach, is a work of great formal power and brilliance that, like “Revelations,” achieves deep emotional resonance. The work has been linked to the cataclysmic events of September 11, but the stirring images of survival and regeneration are relevant in an even larger context. Only a choreographer with Mr. Taylor’s dazzling mastery of craft could so perfectly realize such a noble and heroic vision. His remarkable dancers appeared to turn flesh into spirit.

• The Washington Ballet’s winter program featured a splendid new work by Trey McIntyre, the unfortunately titled “The Reassuring Effects of Form and Poetry,” and a creditable performance of George Balanchine’s dazzling “Rubies” from his full-length “Jewels.”

Director Septime Webre’s staging of “Cinderella” last spring at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater faltered under overly fussy choreography and costumes.

He continues, though, to inspire his dancers with fresh challenges such as William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” which the company performed this fall with riveting skill and energy. It was fascinating to see the company’s beautifully classical ballerina, Michele Jimenez, rise to the stark neoclassical demands of Mr. Forsythe’s choreography.

• “Serenade” was one of many fine performances that the Suzanne Farrell Ballet presented here earlier this month. Ms. Farrell’s company, beautifully rehearsed and dancing with a captivating freshness, is both accomplished and full of promise. Its underwriting by the Kennedy Center assures continuity, and the company’s artistic growth bodes even greater things for the future.

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser managed to maintain some of the exciting momentum he has brought to the complex, even with the Opera House repairs shutting off the principal venue for dance. Last spring’s International Ballet Festival was hampered by the smaller stage and smaller audience capacity of the Eisenhower Theater, but the mix of dance styles from the international companies was intriguing.

Attempting to adapt to the unavailability of the Opera House, he brought the Ailey company to the Concert Hall and tried the grand — and to these eyes successful — experiment of staging American Ballet Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet” with the orchestra at the back of the stage and the gleaming wood of the Concert Hall as scenic backdrop. With stars like Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca playing the lovers opening night, there would have been magic even with no setting at all.

• From England came the fresh look of Ballet Boyz, directed by former Royal Ballet dancers Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, at Lisner Auditorium in October. Their program, with works by such such sought-after choreographers as Mr. Forsythe and the brilliant young Christopher Wheeldon, was a heartening example of dance that was hip and popular without sacrificing high standards of choreography and performance.

From Spain came the mesmerizing Farruquito, a 20-year-old wunderkind who makes boiling drama out of his gypsy moves. He lit up the Lisner stage last winter.

From Brazil came Deborah Colker’s dance company, with a program at the Eisenhower Theater in October that resembled a slick, high-fashion photo shoot. It was visually arresting, but facile behind its superficially arty look.

That same week the Mark Morris Dance Group appeared at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. Mr. Morris can also be facile, campy and rambunctious when he chooses to, but he is one of the most musical, moving and eloquent choreographers working today.

One can only hope the Kennedy Center will repeat its presentation of Mr. Morris’ glowing masterpiece, “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato,” one of the greatest works of the last two decades.

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