Friday, February 25, 2005

The Washington Ballet has plenty of shock and awe, along with a moment of sheer enchantment, in the program it is performing this week at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.

The script went in this order at its official opening Thursday evening: first, the awe of George Balanchine’s masterpiece “Violin Concerto,” then the enchantment of Christopher Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved,” and finally the shock-value premiere of Trey McIntyre’s “Rite of Spring.”

When “Violin Concerto” was first danced, at the famous Stravinsky Festival that Mr. Balanchine staged in 1972, it brought neoclassical ballet to an exciting new level.

The Washington Ballet’s performance was on the bland side: It’s one of those works where the dancers need throwaway technique to give it incisive clarity. Still, it is a grand work. At the heart of the ballet are two strange, memorable duets, one full of tension, danced with flair by Erin Mahoney and newcomer Brian Corman, and the second — one of the most haunting pas de deux Mr. Balanchine made — by Runqiao Du and Sara Ivan.

The evening reached its pinnacle with the D.C. premiere of Mr. Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved.” Mr. Wheeldon is the hottest classical ballet choreographer on the international scene, and with good reason. He brings a new, invigorating voice to the stage, and his range is great — the dazzling “Continuum” he made for San Francisco Ballet, the romantic “Carousel” and violent “Shambards” for the New York City Ballet, the idiosyncratic “Swan Lake” for the Pennsylvania Ballet.

These disparate works show Mr. Wheeldon’s talent for finding arresting form, the easygoing humor that comes naturally to him, his musical intelligence and a gift for using the whole body to make an emotional connection with the audience.

“There Where She Loved” has a youthful bloom, full of tenderness and shifting moods. It speaks of love pursued, love in bloom, love rejected or lost. Mr. Wheeldon designed it as a suite set to alternating songs of Frederic Chopin and Kurt Weill, finding a connecting thread in these two seemingly disparate voices.

Everything about the ballet was a pleasure, most especially the live music. The welcome musicians were pianist Margarita Gramaticova, soprano Dorothy Kingston and mezzo-soprano Shelley Waite.

The dancers in this beautiful work performed with a delicacy and nuance seldom called upon in this extroverted group. Laura Urgelles and Maki Onuki had featured roles, and Jonathan Jordan, Brianne Bland, Miss Mahoney and Mr. Du brought uncommon depth to their dancing.

The most striking characteristic of the Washington Ballet is its ambition. That ambition often leads it to new triumphs but occasionally goes over the edge with slick attempts to startle, shock or dazzle.

Those latter attempts are prominent in Trey McIntyre’s “Rite of Spring: The Engagement” (an ironic — facetious — subtitle if there ever was one), a high-concept, high-style picture of sadomasochism, lesbianism and rape, with a little pseudo-nudity thrown in for good measure.

But there are things to admire in Mr. McIntyre’s high-style route: the glaring white scenic backdrop and lighting designed by Nicholas Phillips, throwing everything into high relief, and the theatrical, extravagant costumes by Vandal, mostly in black but punctuated by a rich, brilliant red for the heroine.

The women’s costumes are short tutus in the front with a swooping puffy train in the back, which the dancers manipulate to dramatic effect. The masks the men sometimes sport make them look like a bunch of whirling Zorros.

There are juicy roles for the principals, who are ironically identified. Laura Urgelles, with her striking face and lithe body, is the put-upon heroine, dubbed the Hostess. Miss Bland gave a vibrant performance as Her Assistant, her one true friend.

Erin Mahoney, a queen bee of decadence, is called Mother, a character right out of the Marquis de Sade. She dominated the action with her over-the-top black dominatrix costume and her long slim legs that reach to the sky. Mr. Jordan, a beautiful dancer who has developed a compelling stage presence, plays the rapist, designated as Fiance, and slithered through a hokey burlesque strip-tease.

“Rite of Spring” creates a splash, although I doubt it will enter the permanent repertoire.

The tight-knit company is operating under a sad handicap. Michele Jimenez’s mother died last week, and the beautiful principal dancer was slated to have performed the leads in all three ballets.

Under the circumstances, the company showed tremendous esprit and strength in depth, as other dancers stepped in to fill her roles. Some of them were already slated to perform on alternate nights, but a most impressive debut was made in the second pas de deux of “Violin Concerto” by a pliant Sara Ivan, who is not even listed as a member of the company. It’s a safe bet she will be soon.


WHAT: The Washington Ballet

WHEN: Children’s matinee today at 1:30 p.m., mixed program of modern works tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $48 to $69

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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