The ballet company from Warsaw’s big (wielki) theater that I remember had a rather different look than the one currently visiting America. No question but that Krzysztof Pastor, director since 2009, has changed its image. It used to have Soviet style during the long era when Poland was subservient to the USSR. The dancing then was highly articulated, light yet pliantly strong. Not as refined as the Kirov or polished as the Bolshoi, the Warsaw dancers’ technique was respectably Vaganova. I saw the group at home at the Teatr Wielki in Asaf Messerer’s “Coppelia” staging and in the Venusberg dances of Wagner’s opera “Tannhaeuser” (seemingly in the manners of Lavrovsky and Bejart) as well as on tour (at Wolf Trap) in “Giselle”. Now, the dancing is still balletic but earthier. Bodies have a lower center of gravity despite ultra-arched leaps by both women and men. Movement has a nicely old fashioned, Ballet Russe consistency, both in Pastor’s pair of academically based works and in the character dancing of Emanuel Gat’s “Rite”. No, this isn’t the dumbed down mixture of ballet and modern dance that Czech, Dutch and other European troupes deploy for balletomodern compromise choreography, but something a little different.
It is much too casually that we dismiss the Don from the ballet “Don Quixote”. This errant knight brings to the action hints of human nobility, of nature’s wonders and of a divine madness. Such aspects elevate this dance comedy in the ranks of works of art. No, I am not referring to the Balanchine/Nabokov version, although it made me see the traditional Petipa/Mikus ballet in a new light. Probably what choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Ludwig Minkus had in mind was the dance equivalent of a zarzuela. However, they did not believe that telling an entertaining story and punctuating it with bravura dancing necessarily excludes spirituality. Their Don is a divine fool whose behavior mentors the prosaic people he meets, endows magical beings such as the dryads with a wild sense of mystery and, ultimately, brings a sort of mad logic to himself.
Artists of the Royal Ballet in Carlos Acosta's production of "Don Quixote." Photo by Johan Persson.
Youth performances abound during the month of May due to the end of school semesters and training periods. The three I attended this year differed from each other but shared a purpose: to show off dancers rather than the art of choreography. However, it speaks well for the training given and the taste displayed that there were, too, examples of choreography being served on all three of the programs. How comparable are the three groups? The Studio Company is an advanced training ensemble or “second” company that often supplements the fully professional dancers of the Washington Ballet. The Washington School, an affiliate of The Washington Ballet, has a large and diverse body of students which includes those with professional ballet as a goal and those who pursue ballet for recreational purposes. The Kirov Academy is an independent school for professional ballet students. It shares aspects of training techniques with Russia’s Kirov/Maryinsky Ballet and with that company’s Vaganova School although there is no official connection currently. Of course, other ballet training institutions operate in the Washington, DC area. One of the best known that I’ve written about previously is Maryland Youth Ballet. Washington draws ballet students and teachers from around the world. This year, both the Kirov Academy and the Washington School gave recital style programs, whereas the WB Studio Company focused on a classic story ballet, Marius Petipa’s “The Sleeping Beauty”.
Kirov Academy of Ballet's Yuna Nagaoka and Oscar Frame in "Paquita." Photo by Paolo Galli.
Forget-me-nots are small but persistent flowers. Daniel Phoenix Singh planted a field of them in his new “Mortal Tongues, Immortal Stories”, a dance in memory of the poetry and poets of AIDS. It was a terrible time in history and not that long ago when the epidemic first hit. In the absence of facts, fear grew rapidly and so did feelings of shame, guilt and remorse. The illness seemed to thrive among three sorts of people – homosexuals, hemophiliacs and Haitians. How it passed from person to person wasn’t yet certain. Could misery and death result from a touch? Nurses and doctors became wary of handling patients. Would perspiration spread the sickness among dance partners? Although darkness concerning the topic persisted for quite a while, the stage for this new dance is awash in white – a ghostly light that projects images of cells and shards of text onto the floor and the backdrop*. There is nothing broken about the texts as recited by two of the cast’s eleven performers. We hear twenty fairly short poems (one repeated twice and another repeated four times) by sixteen poets**. The delivery (by Chris August and Sonya Renee Taylor) is exceptional for its clear enunciation, subtle intonation, acute sense of rhythm and – on occasion – apt motion. To dance about fear, shame, guilt, remorse, sickness, death, loss, memory, desire, love and life could be daunting. Singh meets the challenge in straightforward ways.
Some of the cast for the Joanna Kotze dance was busy laying down linoleum tiles while the audience seated itself, consulted the printed program and began watching.
The tiles were square and diversely colored. They were being placed carefully but in apparently random patterns on the stage floor’s front. Then they were picked up and put down further back. House lights remained on. This was repeated a bit too often until all the colored squares were at the floor’s back perimeter. They ended up not laid out but stacked into four piles, two higher and two lower ones. A member of the linoleum laying team - visual artist Zachary Fabri – kept interrupting his immediately purposeful activity to deliver a few movement asides: fairly brief phrases such as a run in slow motion with the arms punching forward, or a spell of torso vibrating, or an eye dance of stares at the audience. Kotze’s choreography distinguishes between dance and motion as well as among subtypes. Of her six performers, half are designated as dancers and half as visual artists. She doesn’t, with one exception, spare the latter.
These performances disproved two expectations: that big ballet means having a huge cast and vast stage, and that race matters more than a dancer’s individuality. History should already have taught us that not all early productions of what became dance classics involved extravagant means. Several of the splendid stagings around 1900 at the large Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia or at the huge Bolshoi in Moscow were also given in Lilliput versions at private palace theaters such as that of the Hermitage. Did such mini-editions diminish a work of Wagnerian dimensions like “Swan Lake”? What can make that ballet transcendental is due to the imagination more than to material means. The seminal production of “Swan Lake” for the English speaking world that took place 1934 in London was at the Sadler’s Wells Theater, a structure of less than opera house proportions and comparable to DC’s Eisenhower.
Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack in the Washington Ballet's "Swan Lake."
This program of pieces by four working choreo- graphers may be seen as pointing to ballet’s future. The audience in Washington welcomed much of what seemed new yet also consoled itself with comments about even the latest trend being unlikely to last forever. Most radical was Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Much in Peter Martins’ “Symphonic Dances” seemed old hat and, moreover, it lacked tradition’s virtues. Justin Peck’s “Everywhere We Go” repeated two of Martins’ mistakes – stereotyping and not stopping in time – but had some very fresh notions too. Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth” duo developed a remarkable continuity of movement without fully revealing the bitter voice in its music. The company danced daringly, often skirting the edge of danger, and delivered unexpected treats - consummate clowning in the Ratmansky and Peck works.
David Neumann keeps a messy stage. Paraphernalia clutters part of the space. A big stack of objects on the left looks like a workshop. Plastic pillows float over the rear center of the floor, and plastic sheeting lies lumped to the right. There also are three wooden boards, a solitary lamp plus other items. These objects aren’t in total disarray, but placed so as to leave empty areas, presumably for the performers. Four of them appear: one middle aged man, one almost middle aged man, one young man and one woman. Dressed casually and diversely in black, the quartet assembles to deliver a stylized movement phrase. It is in moderately slow motion. None of the four cast members dances like a dancer. Their effort resembles that of the regulars in my neighbors’ exercise class. Perhaps they are trained actors? What they soon convey through more naturalistic action is a hierarchy among them. Three are assistants, required to do the bidding of the middle aged man.
A mixed program can provide many pleasures: choreographic and musical variety, more stars per performance, and also lots of chances to compare, contrast and speculate. Can we conjecture which of the leading couples of ABT’s tradition-tinged triple bill in Washington will live happily ever after after their curtain falls? The imperial pair whose courtship we witness in George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations”, is meant to rule together. Yet, might not revolution intervene and come to blight their lives? The cow poke couple Agnes De Mille matches up in “Rodeo” may settle into a home on the range but weren’t they kids still, just starting out, who would have had to face America’s mounting divorce rate? To me the two whose future seems the most uncertain are Antony Tudor’s troubled Hagar and her family’s gentleman Friend in “Pillar of Fire”. That’s because Tudor gives us a very close look at them only at first. Initially, we watch their behavior as through a magnifying glass. Hagar sways: one instant she is sensual and the next she is ashamed. He, at the start, is inexplicably, enigmatically insensitive. It takes him time to respond to Hagar and Tudor never tells what eventually opens his eyes. At the end of “Pillar”, Hagar and her Friend seem far away, very distant, as if we were looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope. They wend their way through the woods, seemingly without effort, but Tudor’s narrative has ceased to be clinical and instead become vague.
Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in "Pillar of Fire." Marty Sohl.
Forty years ago or so, Maida Withers was dancing in Washington. Shaping movement phrases seemed to be her thing then and it still is. I’d not heard of Withers before moving to town but locally she was already a presence as faculty at GWU’s dance department (from 1964), as an inquisitive choreographer, and as a statuesque and staunch performer on stage. In the years since, Withers has kept reminding us that the body is meant to move and not while time away being still. She has become our conscience whenever exercising seems too troublesome to bother with. Moreover, Withers has often traveled far from home, to 18 different countries, where her example has prompted people to dance and to collaborate with dancers. Even now, she is unafraid to let herself be seen dancing in public. Withers’ brief solo – a scene not even four minutes long – was the crux of the 85 minutes long “MindFluctuations”.