- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

The two dances on the Washington Ballet’s current run at the Kennedy Center, which concludes with four performances this weekend, are a study in contrasts.

The program opens with the spare, riveting choreography of “Morphoses,” an intense work by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon for just four dancers set to the harsh, intriguing music of Gyorgy Ligeti. It concludes with director Septime Webre’s large-scale “Carmina Burana” featuring a cast of literally hundreds onstage, set to Carl Orff’s hedonistic, oft-played score.

“Morphoses” is brilliant, a triumph for the choreographer and the dancers who performed it. Mr. Wheeldon uses ballet footwork — especially bourres (little traveling steps with the ballerina on pointe) and pirouettes — then carves out striking movements that hurl the dancers into strange, unexplored territory. At one moment, a couple curls into a Rube Goldberg-like pretzel, and suddenly the woman is thrust into the air, her hands quivering like bird wings. In Mr. Wheeldon’s world, men are incredibly strong and women preternaturally flexible.

His choreography, vibrantly attuned to his musical score, pulses with wonderful shapes and images. It is abstract — there certainly is no story line — but not without emotional impact. The interaction of the dancers in this dense work conveys challenge and trust in a way that is both mesmerizing and moving.

All four dancers outdid themselves. Luis Torres, Sona Kharatian and Jared Nelson gave performances that were highlights of their careers, and the fourth, lissome young Jade Payette — new to the company and listed only as an apprentice — is sure to be promoted soon.

Kathleen Tracy rehearsed the dancers in the dense, difficult moves of “Morphoses,” with Mr. Wheeldon coming in at the end to give it the kind of authoritative detail only the creator of a work can do.

In contrast to the spare look of “Morphoses” with its minimal costumes and stage effects, “Carmina Burana” is a florid, sprawling affair. Mr. Webre’s forte is his imaginative, large-scale staging, with tiers of singers (from the Cathedral Choral Society and its Children’s Chorus) dressed in hooded robes and arranged on industrial tiers three stories high that frame the stage.

Vandal, the costume designer, plays a large role in this production, creating a series of costume changes for the large cast of dancers that include monk’s hoods for men and women, sand-colored diaphanous robes, men-in-drag costumes and two- and three-story-high constructions of regal costumes — some large enough to harbor two dancers at their base, with four knobby legs scurrying under the skirts to amusing effect.

A highlight of the performance was a series of solos by Jason Hartley, who, by his concentration and nobility, turned acrobatic feats into something more exalted.

Like the music, the dance is by turns bawdy, exhilarating, passionate, declamatory, tender — and also long. The clever theatrical staging and generic movement are not always enough to keep it from sagging.

A huge pleasure of the evening was its excellent live music. Both the string players from New York who played Mr. Ligeti’s quartet and the large chorus and splendid soloists — Laura Lewis, Robert Baker and Steven Combs, who sang under J. Reilly Lewis’ direction for “Carmina”— added immeasurably to the show.

***

WHAT: Washington Ballet in “Morphoses” and “Carmina Burana”

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

WHERE: Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $65 to $115

PHONE: 202/467-4600 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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