"Wunderland", "Brahms on Edge", "Bolero"
The Washington Ballet
April 15, 2010
by George Jackson
copyright 2010 by George Jackson
The Washington Ballet's artistic director, Septime Webre, does not strike me as a gloomy sort of guy. Prior to each performance, he steps jauntily in front of the curtains. There's a smile on his face as he says something snappy as well as informative to welcome the audience. Is that, though, merely a facade? Does he, in the dark of the night when drafting choreographer contracts, demand that additions to the repertory contain big doses of melancholy? This program certainly made it seem so, especially Karole Armitage's brand new Brahms ballet.
Charcoal black and ash gray are the colors of the costuming in Armitage's "Brahms on Edge" - an awful title she pursues with a vengeance. The songs she has chosen sound grave. At first I thought they might include the Brahms set called the "4 Serious Songs" but they are not from a cycle and there proved to be 6 of them*. The curtain opens on an all female cast, 7 women in the charcoal (leotards like in stripped-down Balanchine) who are soon joined by an 8th wearing the ash (a shift). Their bodies, although articulating and splaying balletically, are held twisted and contorted. Not just portents but outright dramatic expression is manifest, particularly in the solo woman's face and phrasing. It intensifies with the appearance of a male. The relationship between the man and the solo female is fraught with tension. Images flicker like distant lightning in the pair's interaction. They allude to legendary lovers of the unhappy variety - Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Isolde, perhaps Romeo and Juliet. Almost before one has become aware of them, they disappear. For somewhat longer, three subsidiary males join the turbulence. Is the final pile-up of bodies a reference to Paul Taylor's "Last Look" or is it a coincidence?
Armitage is, I suspect, trying to make a new hybrid of dramatic expression and classical dancing, the old hybrids (from 1920s balletic Ausdruckstanz to 1950s ballet/modern fusions) having passed into history. On Thursday, though, her stylization looked calculated and awkward. Jared Nelson, as the principal male, was the only one in the cast whose emotions arose convincingly from inside, from his guts. He was able to spill them out into space and at the audience. Sona Kharatian, although moving with impressive control, seemed uncomfortable embodying and displaying strong feelings. I'd like to see the corps launch into Armitage's distorted classicism after a week of consecutive performances. Cynthia Hanna, mezzo, and pianist Joy Schreier, courtesy of the Washington National Opera, performed the Brahms lieder.
Thursday must have been Kharatian and Nelson night at Washington Ballet for they also led the following work, Nicolo Fonte's "Bolero". Its start seemed almost a continuation of Armitage's ballet not just because of the Kharatian-Nelson pairing but also because of the mood and choreography. Again, the couple's encounter was emotionally tense and there was distortion of classical norms. Only in this instance it was more a matter of the dancers' motion than their positioning which had been changed from standard practice. Ravel music did not accompany the opening duet but, instead, there was noise.
The "Bolero" score proper, with its increments in volume and reiterative phrasing, is a musical challenge to choreographers. Versions I've seen recently by Alexei Ratmansky (live), Bernd Bienert (on screen) and Bronislava Nijinska (on screen, a reconstruction of the original) pale compared to memories of Maurice Bejart's. Although Bejart alternated gender when casting his "Bolero" (Suzanne Farrell, Maya Plisetskaya, Sylvie Guillem or Jorge Donn as soloist and, depending, a male or female corps), he adhered to the music. Fonte doesn't. He's too busy making thematic and spatial variations. In the foreground are duos, trios and quartets to tackle the main movement phrases. Meanwhile dancers in the background rush across the stage doing phrase fragments. The decor consists of a dozen corrugated metal panels positioned upright at various places on stage. They are handsome objects and serve initially to hide some of the dancing. Rising up towards the rafters in order to open more and more stage space, they contribute to the general busyness of the scene. Ravel's music, even at top volumes, isn't busy. Fonte also contrasts the angry, cruel, sad emotions of his lead couple with the relative stoicism of the other dancers. The ballet's conclusion can be read as rape or murder but fails either way. With "Bolero", Fonte has not kept the promise he made here a few seasons ago with his short ballet - a quartet for figures in the mystic manner of William Blake's drawings.
"Wunderland", the Edwaard Liang / Philip Glass ballet which opened the program, has diverse moods. Melancholy is just one of them. The piece was new last year (see danceviewtimes.com for May 15, 2009 and October 4, 2009) and has been better performed previously than on Thursday. Still, there were fine moments from Elizabeth Gaither, Maki Onuki, Jonathan Jordan and (again) Nelson. As a totality, Liang's work was this bill's most satisfying.
* The Johannes Brahms songs are: "Die Mainacht (May Night)", "Kommt Dir Manchmal in Den Sinn ..." (Sometimes Do You Recall ...)", "Sonntag (Sunday)", "Von Ewiger Liebe" (Of Eternal Love)", "Wie Raff Ich Mich Auf in Der Nacht" (How Agitated I Become at Night)" and "Ruhe, Suessliebchen, im Schatten (Be Still, Sweetheart, in the Shadows)".