- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

At the beginning of the creative process, the painter faces a blank canvas, the composer a mute piano, the novelist has yet to type a word. A romantic aura is attached to artists’ angst out of the public eye.

A choreographer faces a more stressful task: to expose his mistakes, struggles, false starts and “let’s try another approach” moments in public before a studio full of dancers. With such expensive raw material as the medium, he or she must turn out a completed product in a matter of weeks.

Or, in the case of the Washington Ballet, sometimes in a matter of hours.

The company has been in the throes of red-hot creativity the past couple of weeks, readying “7 X 7,” its popular spring program. Seven choreographers will each create a seven-minute production at the company’s Wisconsin Avenue studio, with dance and dancers viewed up-close and personal.

“7 X 7” is the brainchild of Artistic Director Septime Webre, and for 2007, the theme is more exalted and challenging than others in the past. Shakespeare and his plays are the subject, and the dance makers are some of the best and brightest in the business, not to mention some of the fastest. Among them are such internationally renowned choreographers as Karole Armitage, Stephen Petronio and Trey McIntyre.

The bright imagination and different approaches at work in this mini Shakespeare festival show up in many ways: in Mr. Petronio’s choice of both the Prokofiev score and rock music for his “Romeo and Juliet” to Brian Reeder’s cinematic approach. (“I start to see a little short film,” he says. “Lady Capulet at a vanity table, putting on makeup, getting ready to face the town square again.”)

In one intriguing approach, Canadian choreographer Matjash Mrozewski decided to set his work on a soundtrack of people talking about Shakespeare. He made the tape, which he liked, but then scrapped it, feeling it was too ambitious an idea to pull off in a short rehearsal period. So, it became one of those “let’s try another approach” moments.

Because ballet has fewer preserved masterpieces from the past than other art forms, it needs to rely on fresh infusions. “7 X 7’s” choreographers are in high demand: Miss Armitage flew in six days ago from London — where she is staging a work for the Rambert Ballet — and left the next day after working with the Washington Ballet dancers for eight hours. She then sped off to New York City, where she is choreographing a musical for the Public Playhouse, and returned to Washington yesterday to finish. Mr. McIntyre could spare just four days, completing the work in eight hours, then spending the rest of the time refining it.

“I gave the dancers a lot of information,” he says. “I want their characters to develop after I’m gone because I can’t be here to direct it.”

The combination of Shakespeare, making something meaningful in just a few hours, and the seven-minute time limit seems to have excited and inspired rather than intimidated the choreographers.

Mr. Webre tried to give the choreographers a lot of freedom within the basic ground rules. Some chose lesser-known works (Mr. McIntyre decided to highlight one pivotal character from “Titus Andronicus”) or focused on a single character in a play (Mr. Reeder explored the reactions of Lady Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet,” one of three R & J’s, the others being Mr. Petronio’s and Mr. Mrozewski’s).

Partly what inspired Mr. Petronio is a book that’s just been released, “Letters to Juliet”; he has dancers onstage speaking words from it. “People from all over the world write to her,” Mr. Petronio explains. “Some of them are just addressed, ‘Juliet, Verona.’ ”

Although he deals with these words in his usual abstract way, he still reacts to the message that comes out in many of the letters. “Some are from people who are in love with the wrong color person or the wrong sex person, wrong religion — basic traumas concerning love,” he says. “And the letters are beautiful. When I read them I was floored.”

Two approaches to “Hamlet” emerged. Miss Armitage uses the music of Shakespeare’s words, choosing “To be or not to be” on a recording by Richard Burton. Cathy Marston concentrated on a following scene.

“Since everyone knows the words,” Miss Armitage says of her choice, “it gave me freedom to be more complicated dancewise. Hamlet is supposed to avenge his father’s death, but he feels if he commits murder he’s only bringing more evil into the world; yet, socially, it’s expected of him.”

To capture that dilemma, Miss Armitage has a basic Hamlet and three ghost Hamlets onstage. She also has an alternate cast, so she has commandeered most of the company’s male dancers for her work.

The dancers in this chamber-sized company are taking on several roles. Jason Hartley, who always figures prominently, is cast in Miss Armitage’s ballet and three others. He says it’s a fine chance to work with a variety of choreographers he has always wanted to work with and try a variety of roles. “It’s the best of times,” he adds, “from the performance aspect — and sometimes the worst of times for your body.”

Mr. Webre appears to have ridden herd very sparingly on this artistic maelstrom. He gave the choreographers a week to set their dances but arranged to extend the time for one or two who needed more. He made just a couple of suggestions about content. To bring contrast to the program’s dramatic tragedies, he asked Matt Neenan if he would do something “very dance-y” and asked Mr. McIntyre to make a very physical work “because I thought some of the others might be quite intellectual.”

A week ago, Mr. McIntyre, all 6 feet 6 inches of him, towered over the dancers in one of the smaller studios, with members of the staff and technical team watching, as Sona Kharatian, Jonathan Jordan and Mr. Hartley galloped through spiky, demanding gestures, while in the largest studio, Mr. Neenan shaped a sweep of dancers covering space with airy, filigreed movements.

As the opening date draws near, Mr. Webre reflects on the strain a choreographer faces making a new work and adds, “Multiply that by seven, reduce it to a two-week period, with five studios filled at the same time and dancers jumping from one studio to the other — things can get pretty intense.”

WHAT: The Washington Ballet in “7 X 7”

WHEN:Tuesday through May 20. Show times vary.

WHERE: Washington Ballet’s England Studio Theater, 3515 Wisconsin Ave. NW

TICKETS $60

PHONE: 202/397-7328

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