- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Dance was all over the place at New York’s Lincoln Center this past weekend.

On a balmy Saturday evening, a salsa band played in the plaza while scores danced to its lilting Latin rhythms; hundreds more swayed and watched and others streamed past into the surrounding theaters.

At the Metropolitan Opera House, bedecked with its colorful Marc Chagall murals, American Ballet Theatre was in the middle of its season, dancing an all-Fokine program seen earlier this year at the Kennedy Center.

And the New York City Ballet staged memorable performances at the New York State Theater, drawing from its rich repertoire of one-act ballets.

NYCB’s performances were highlighted by several works never seen in Washington, including two from the talented and versatile choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and by the farewell performance of Jock Soto, one of the company’s strongest and most unusual leading men.

Those two threads — Mr. Wheeldon and Mr. Soto — came together in a memorable performance of “After the Rain,” set to a haunting score by Arvo Part.

“After the Rain” is in two parts — the first for three couples and the second an extended pas de deux for a single couple. As the first section begins, the men support the women as they cantilever one leg out into space. Their movements are striking and well-crafted, the costumes are leotards in shades of blue, and the lighting accentuates the cool, sparse look.

As the second section begins, Mr. Soto and his partner, Wendy Whelan, reappear — she in a pink, flesh-colored leotard, her hair loose and flowing; he bare-chested and in white pants.

The orchestra is dispensed with; the hushed sounds come from a single violin and piano. The two dance in perfect harmony — Mr. Soto folding his partner’s body into strange shapes, Miss Whelan trusting his support as she leans against him or flies into his arms. It feels like the most tender, trusting day this couple has ever spent together.

Toward the end, he carries her body high above him, her legs stretched and extended, feet flexed — looking somewhat like an oversized doll but mostly like a soaring, postmodern angel.

The poignant question that hovered over the performance was how “After the Rain” could be sustained now that this extraordinary partnership has been broken by the 40-year-old Mr. Soto’s retirement from the stage.

NYCB was absent from Washington for 18 years, and just two years ago reinstated annual visits to the city. Large chunks of its repertoire have never been seen here, and we have long missed all those glorious Balanchine ballets that are the company’s birthright.

Still, others by the versatile Jerome Robbins, who moved between the ballet stage and Broadway, have never come to Washington, either. “Opus 19/The Dreamer,” a powerful ballet he created in 1979 for Mikhail Baryshnikov, was danced vividly this past weekend by Damian Woetzel. It should be seen here, as well.

Another NYCB grace note last weekend was Mr. Wheeldon’s recent “Carnival of the Animals,” set to the music of Camille Saint-Saens.

“Carnival” has an amusing script by actor John Lithgow, who took a break from his Broadway hit “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” to narrate the ballet and also appear in drag as an elephant (personifying an overstuffed buxom woman), one of many animals that appear in Mr. Wheeldon’s witty choreography.

It was a happy choice for a Saturday matinee, and young viewers also were entertained by Mr. Robbins’ “Fanfare,” set to Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” The splendid introduction to the pleasures of dance also included the wondrous “After the Rain” and a virtuoso performance of “Tarantella” with Daniel Ulbricht in Edward Villella’s original role.

The weekend concluded with Sunday’s matinee celebration of Mr. Soto. He danced in five ballets, a tribute to his versatility and stamina — and other more endearing traits, such as his musicality and exceptional skills as a partner.

It ended with the high spirits of Mr. Balanchine’s finale to “Union Jack,” with sailors dancing to merry hornpipes, many of the company’s stars taking solo turns, flags unfurled and cannons booming. Mr. Soto stood smiling center stage, presented with hugs and armfuls of bouquets by his colleagues and pelted with flowers from the audience.

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