- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

The Washington Ballet opened its fall season with an expanded company roster and a multifaceted program that showed its classical chops dancing Balanchine and its feisty side in Septime Webre’s “Carmen” and Twyla Tharp’s witty, glittering “Sinatra Suite.”

Still struggling to arrive at a first negotiated contract with its dancers since they joined the American Guild of Musical Artists, the company looked fresh, invigorated and rehearsed to a T.

In fact, so uniform in timing and spacing were the wonderful corps passages in Balanchine’s “Serenade” that there was almost a military flourish where something freer was needed.

There is a limit, however, to how much musical nuance a company can breathe into its dancing when performing to recorded scores. The Washington Ballet has expanded dramatically in terms of scale and richness of its staging. Even more central to the quest for truly great performances is musicality. Finding the resources for a live orchestra would seem to be an important next step.

Still, it was a splendid performance of a masterful ballet, the first that Mr. Balanchine created when he came to this country. It is a compendium of relatively simple ballet steps — he thought of it as a teaching project for neophyte dancers. But, oh, what he did with those simple steps, what a spell of enchantment he wove.

Threaded through the rapturous passages for the corps are a poignant drama; a romantic waltz, danced passionately by Runqiao Du and Michele Jimenez; a grave interlude for a female quintet led by Brianne Bland; and, most striking of all, the mysterious interaction between Miss Jimenez, Jared Nelson and Erin Mahoney-Du.

“Carmen,” seen here four years ago, has been sharpened, but its virtues and flaws remain much the same. Mr. Webre is strong on concept and dramatic flair. The Picasso-inspired sets are stunning, the costumes colorful and Rodion Shchedrin’s somewhat hokey arrangement of Bizet’s score serviceable.

There is a striking scene in a tavern where the dancers accompany themselves a cappella with clapping hands, stamping feet and stools pounded on the floor. Mr. Webre has inserted a counterbalance to the wanton Carmen — a Lady in White who is supposed to represent some sort of salvation to the befuddled Don Jose, but the character is not developed and she floats on and off to little effect.

The ballet is full of yards of undistinguished choreography — multiple turns, endlessly repeated, are its hallmark. Only in the last, starkly dramatic scene of Carmen’s stabbing does the work display impressive originality.

The dancers tore into their parts. Miss Jimenez was a bold and forceful Carmen, and Jared Nelson was a properly anguished Don Jose. Jonathan Jordan, hampered by an unflattering costume, was still a brilliant Toreador, and Miss Bland was the selfless Lady in White.

The evening ended with a joyous romp — Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” set to Ol’ Blue Eyes at his sexiest best and danced by seven couples. The choreography was a hoot — just as impudent and unbuttoned as the vocals — throwing the dancers into impossibly intricate partnering done at breakneck speed.

The dancers, in borrowed Oscar de la Renta finery from the Kansas City Ballet, gamely slid under one another’s legs, let themselves be dragged across the stage, did double-take encounters and pratfalls, were borne aloft in unorthodox lifts — and mostly maintained their cool through it all.

The moods changed in a series of breathless duets, from amorous (Elizabeth Gaither and Mr. Du) to insinuating (Laura Urgelles and Alvaro Palau) to perky (Maki Onuki and Zachary Hackstock ) to dreamy (Sona Kharatian and Chip Coleman) to irrepressibly peppy (Morgann Rose and Mr. Jordan).

The most outrageously funky and original duets were an audacious drunken encounter between Miss Mahoney-Du and Luis Torres and a defiant one between Miss Jimenez and Mr. Nelson. They deservedly brought down the house.


WHAT: The Washington Ballet

WHEN: Today at 2:30 and 8 p.m., tomorrow at 1 and 5 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $19 to $105

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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