Friday, May 12, 2006

Music — both classic and pop — and dancing that sometimes turned the equation upside down were all over the stage at Thursday evening’s premiere of the Washington Ballet’s “The Bach/Beatles Project.”

Surprisingly, Septime Webre loaded Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” with more theatrical gimmicks than the Beatles work, choreographed by Trey McIntyre, which followed.

“State of Wonder,” the title of Mr. Webre’s ballet, has an austere visual beginning, framed in black and white, with the dancers looking like athletes costumed in two-tone gray bathing suits. A solo by Jonathan Jordan to the wondrous opening aria sets out certain motifs — a right arm raised and held; tumbles to the floor; a small, bent-legged jump.

The variations pour out in brisk succession. There is delicate variety in the music — some sections lightly flickering, some gracefully lilting, some swiftly brilliant. Mr. Webre emphasizes the latter in his choreography.

He is most inventive in the transition passages: After an early variation, a flock of newcomers rush in and sweep the dancers backward offstage. At the end of a male sextet, two men are held aloft, each by two others, and carried off in grand fashion. These emphatic finales were designed for applause, and the audience responded.

Midway through the dance, we had an over-the-top musical-instrument pas de deux, with a harpsichord and a piano set on two high white platforms rolled around the stage by the dancers. Eventually the piano retreated, to reappear for the final section.

The dancers came back in jewel-colored costumes, the men bare-chested and trailing rich taffeta skirts — which they sometimes whirled and snapped to noisy effect.

The poignant Variation 25 did not capture its soulful tenderness, but Mr. Webre was effective in having two couples pause — a tableau vivant — as the third couple danced.

“State of Wonder” draws to the conclusion with a rousing martial drinking song, but here the dance turns strangely elegant, the whole company doing ballet tendus and other classic classroom moves.

Then it’s on to the benediction, a return to the original aria, with Jason Hartley performing it with grave grace.

The contemplative side of the music, present along with its variety and brilliance, was largely missing. A ballet is not a chamber-music event, of course, and it calls for visual and theatrical highlights, but Mr. Webre tends to pile on effects when a moment of small grace and quiet repose might rest the eye and be more illuminating in the end.

Mr. McIntyre, calling his work “Always, No Sometimes,” chose 12 Beatles songs for his score. Almost four decades since the breakup of the Fab Four, he has produced a thrilling evocation of their music and its moods, bringing the full resources of ballet to his crossover work.

He reflects the spectrum of emotions imbedded in the songs — melancholy, rambunctious, funny, drug-tinged — and finds ways to express them through original movement that blends street smarts and classical radiance.

For his work, Mr. McIntyre chose four men and four women who dance as if possessed. His ballet has a star: the amazing Mr. Hartley. If ever it was hard to tell the dancer from the dance, it is in “No Sometimes,” in which Mr. Hartley gives a performance that is as brilliant, generous, unique and heartfelt as anything seen from this company. The dancer’s strong, still presence combined with casual speedy riffs and breathtaking virtuosity are riveting and create a tug in Mr. McIntyre’s haunting ending.

There is more — Michele Jimenez’s moving performance in “Julia”; Mr. Jordan’s cocky solo, “Wild Honey Pie”; Erin Mahoney-Du and Jared Nelson in a range of roles; and all the rest — Runqiao Du, Laura Urgelles and Sona Kharatian.

They all were assets in Mr. Webre’s work as well, joined there by other vivid performances from Elizabeth Gaither, Luis Torres, Maki Onuki, Morgann Rose and Chip Coleman.


WHAT: Washington Ballet in “The Bach/Beatles Project”

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

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $29 to $105

PHONE: 202/467-4600


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