- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

Two dancers step onto a bare stage with stars glimmering behind them. They move to the music of Chopin, their gestures sweetly ardent, full of romantic promise.

So begin the opening moments of “In the Night,” the Washington Ballet’s first foray into the magical world of choreographer Jerome Robbins.

It marks an arresting introduction to the company’s ambitious fall program at the Kennedy Center, which concludes with performances this afternoon and evening and tomorrow afternoon.

“In the Night” was the most fully realized ballet in an evening that also included Artistic Director Septime Webre’s new “oui, non” and Twyla Tharp’s highly charged “In the Upper Room.”

“Night” also is the greatest challenge to the dancers’ artistry, full of light and shadow as three couples illuminate their relationships with breathtakingly beautiful lifts and subtle changes of mood. It was a triumph for all concerned — the company’s associate artistic director, Jeff Edwards, who staged the work with sensitivity; Robbins representative Christine Redpath; and especially the six dancers who covered themselves with glory.

It was a special treat to have the evocative Chopin Nocturnes played live by Scott Dettra, although his performance was more declarative than dreamy.

The first couple, Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson, set an exalted tone with their gravely tender, expansive gestures. Erin Mahoney-Du and Runqiao Du, two of the most commanding dancers in the company, brought a touch of ballroom manners and formal elegance to their duet. The third couple was the most dramatic, fully engaged in an intense relationship that veered from prickly encounters to a moment when she threw herself down in front of him. Sona Kharatian, who has been a lovely, quiet presence in the past, blossomed into a vivid, passionate woman, her every fleeting emotion met with like fervor by Luis R. Torres.

Perhaps if Mr. Webre’s new work, “oui, non,” had been seen on another program instead of following on the heels of Mr. Robbins’ inspired choreography with its infinitely varied and soaring lifts, it might have seemed better. But the lifts in “oui, non” were frequently clumsy: Women were flung over a man’s back like unwieldy packages, then grappled awkwardly into a new position. Without the scrambled lifts and endless pirouettes, there was not much to the rest of the dance.

Mr. Webre’s forte is staging, not choreography. Here he offered a colorful palette, beginning with Elizabeth Peyton’s set design of a reclining woman, Clifton Taylor’s nightclub lighting and especially the rich, husky voice of Karen Akers singing rueful, Edith Piaf-tinged songs. Regrettably, she remained in the background while ubiquitous pirouettes often obscured her, but for one brief, shining moment, she was center stage, and the audience loved it.

As for the dancers, they threw themselves into the choreography like the troupers they are. Mr. Webre has two fabulous dancers in Jason Hartley and Jonathan Jordan, and he displays them here, as he has in the past, to fine effect.

Twyla Tharp’s tour de force, “In the Upper Room,” staged by Stacy Cadell, closed the evening with a grand flourish. A testament to its dancers’ aerobic fitness and Miss Tharp’s endless inventiveness, it can become a testament to the audience’s fortitude, as well.

In her book “The Creative Habit,” Miss Tharp describes her morning routine: “I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m.” She dresses, hails a cab and goes to a gym, “where I work out for two hours.”

It takes that kind of rigor, plus a streak of genius, to come up with something like Miss Tharp’s perpetual-motion “Upper Room.”

It’s set in a wonderful space — a gray fog streaked with rays of light, from which dancers magically appear and disappear. Phalanxes of dancers emerge — first modern dancers in stylish Norma Kamali black-and-white-striped coveralls, some dressed in sneakers, later ballet dancers sporting bright red pointe shoes and socks. Borne on Philip Glass’ insistent beat, their energy seems endless, the driving force compelling. What the audience experiences is a continuous thrust of movement, although the constant turnover of groups onstage gives the dancers occasional brief moments to rev up for their next entrance.

Besides the company stalwarts already mentioned, dancers who stood out were Morgann Rose, Sean Stewart, Brianne Bland, Maki Onuki and Laura Urgelles.

The company’s physical fitness is astounding, but if memory serves, the original performances of “In the Upper Room” by Miss Tharp’s own group and later ones by American Ballet Theatre had a sharper edge and more brilliant attack. The Washington Ballet danced it with admirably high energy but with a softer, more loping lilt in some sections. While appealing, this lessened the drive, and without that extra kick, the dance seems unnecessarily long.

Kudos to Septime Webre for envisioning such a program and to his dancers for implementing it so tellingly.

***

WHAT: Washington Ballet

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

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $29 to $120

PHONE: 202/467-4600


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