After 14 years, Michael Kaiser has programmed his last season at the Kennedy Center, leaving behind a 2014-15 season of strong dance programming and new commissions.
On Tuesday, the Kennedy Center announced its upcoming dance, theater and jazz performances and festivals, as well as the programming for its affiliate organizations, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. The 2014-15 season includes perennial favorites such as violinist Joshua Bell and the Mariinsky Ballet, and some much-anticipated firsts, such as the world premiere of the Kennedy Center production “Little Dancer.” Across all disciplines, the Kennedy Center is investing in new commissions and world premieres.
“I’m excited about how many world premieres there are in so many different areas,” Kaiser said. “It’s not a centerwide directive, but it’s something we’ve been leading up to. When I got here 13 years ago, we hadn’t produced any [new works] in 14 years.”
“Little Dancer,” an original musical inspired by Edgar Degas’s “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,” is the splashiest Kennedy Center production of the season, set to debut in October 2014. The center also announced “Iberia Suite” — a celebration of the arts and culture of the Iberian peninsula and its global influence — as its international festival for the season. Crowd favorite “The Book of Mormon” will return in 2015, and the musical “Once” arrives after beginning its national tour last year. But Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks notes that straight plays by American playwrights are largely absent from the announcement, except those for children: The Kennedy Center has commissioned five theatrical pieces for young audiences.
Washington Post critics took a look at the upcoming season, noting the must-see and missing performances at the region’s biggest performing arts center.
With dance themes in its theater offerings as well as promising ballet and contemporary-dance productions, the Kennedy Center is offering an exceptionally rich dance focus next season. First, the most unusual news: A pair of ballerinas are taking star turns in theater productions. Good for them, and probably for us. New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck will be featured in the Susan Stroman-choreographed “Little Dancer,” which takes place in Degas’s haunts, behind the scenes at the Paris Opera Ballet. And retired prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri stars in Martha Clarke’s “Cheri,” with American Ballet Theatre principal Herman Cornejo and Oscar-nominated actress Amy Irving. (The story, as you might guess from the name, is very French: love, taboos, an older woman, Paris in La Belle Epoque . . .) This is a pairing to thrill ballet fans, as both Ferri and Cornejo can be counted on for passionate expressiveness and warmth. Clarke, a founding member of Pilobolus, is known for eking dramatic power out of steamy, wordless entanglements. Romance and heartbreak are ensured, with musical help from Ravel, Debussy and Poulenc.
The allure of Paris continues in “As I Remember It,” in which the celebrated Carmen de Lavallade reminisces about performing in the City of Light with Josephine Baker, among other stops in a fascinating life. But the strongest cultural impression stands to be left by the Iberian Suite festival. Among the highlights are Spain’s Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras (her “Voces, Suite Flamenca,” features guest dancer Jose Serrano) and Compania Maria Pages (also flamenco); Portugal’s Companhia Portuguesa de Bailando Contemporaneo in a piece called “Fado,” with the haunting vocals of Carla Pires; and Brazil’s Grupo Corpo in “Sem Mim,” which includes songs from the 13th century.
There’s a distinct international focus in dance next season, and it’s not only in the Iberian festival. The Scottish Ballet makes its Kennedy Center debut with a full-length production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams’s play interpreted through a collaboration among choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, theater and film director Nancy Meckler and composer Peter Salem. The Royal Ballet performs “Don Quixote,” staged by Cuban-born ballet star Carlos Acosta (with the Minkus score and “drawing on Petipa,” who created the original, well-known ballet), along with a mixed bill of works by English choreographers Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett. For more foreign flavor: another annual visit by the Mariinsky Ballet in a program that salutes the Ballets Russes era, with “Le Sacre du Printemps,” accompanied by the famous Stravinsky score, and Michel Fokine’s “Le Spectre de la Rose,” plus Israel’s quirky-dramatic powerhouse Batsheva and Beijing Dance Theater.
The Washington National Opera, whose season calendar had been growing sparse in recent years, is making good on its promise to fill it up again — with five main-stage productions and a burgeoning array of other offerings.
In the opera house, audiences can see the company premieres of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (sung in English, with Dolora Zajick in her debuting role as Madame de Croissy) and of “Florencia in the Amazon” by the late Daniel Catan, a melodic work inspired by the magical realisms of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, most recently seen in the D.C. area at the University of Maryland in 2010. WNO will also present a new production of “La Bohème,” a new-to-Washington production of Gioachino Rossini’s “Cinderella” with the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard in the title role, and a revival of Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” with the acclaimed bass-baritone Eric Owens making his stage debut as the Dutchman.
In addition, the company will present Rachel Portman’s operatic setting of the children’s classic “The Little Prince” in the Terrace Theater, as well as the world premiere of the one-hour opera “Penny,” part of its American Opera commissioning program, and recitals by Owens, the tenor Stephen Costello, and the soprano Ailyn Perez — the latter two appearing jointly in a husband-and-wife performance.
The National Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach is sticking to its policy of showcasing big familiar names, composers and soloists alike. The orchestra is starting a multi-year cycle of Mahler symphonies (with the 5th and 9th), offering a Tchaikovsky festival and joining the Kennedy Center’s Iberia Festival with two programs, one including Falla’s opera “La Vida Breve” (conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos) and one, far more predictably, of Spanish-themed works by French composers (cue Ravel’s “Bolero”). Meanwhile Lang Lang, the pianist, returns for a recital.
There are certainly other highlights. Eschenbach is continuing to bring contemporary German composers to Washington audiences with the American premiere of a new piano concerto by the German heavyweight Wolfgang Rihm, co-commissioned with the Salzburg festival and performed by Eschenbach pet Tzimon Barto. Composer Matthias Pintscher will conduct his new violin concerto “Mar’eh” in February. Another highlight will be the massive piano concerto by the early 20th-century Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, a five-movement work for soloist, orchestra and men’s chorus, which the NSO hasn’t played since 1943 and which Garrick Ohlsson will perform in November. This year’s Hechinger commission, of a new American work, has yet to be announced.
In residence this season will be the violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who over two weeks in May will perform several programs, including the Sibelius concerto, the first Bach concerto and a recital with Eschenbach.
The season of the Fortas Chamber Music Series will stay anchored to some of its familiar guests: the Emerson Quartet, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the vocal quartet Anonymous 4. Acclaimed double-bass player Edgar Meyer will offer a solo recital, while guitarist Sharon Isbin will team up with mezzo Isabel Leonard, and the Miro Quartet will perform Schubert songs with mezzo Sasha Cooke.
A highlight of the family concert season is a new family-friendly commission from pops conductor Steven Reineke, called “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” for narrator and orchestra. The pops season features, among other things, an evening with vocalist Sutton Foster and music by Danny Elfman, written for movies by Tim Burton.
“Little Dancer,” directed by Susan Stroman (“The Producers,” “Bullets Over Broadway”) is the first new musical produced by the Kennedy Center in ages. The score is by the “Ragtime” team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and the cast features Boyd Gaines, Rebecca Luker and Tiler Peck, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. A revamped stage version of “Gigi,” based on the 1958 movie, that had a brief run on Broadway in the early 1970s, will be directed by Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer, with a cast to be announced.
The other multi-week major offerings are all touring musicals, the most noteworthy being the road company of the Tony-winning “Once.” And the sensational “Book of Mormon” will be back in the summer of 2015 after a hugely successful residency last summer. Two touring war horses from the Andrew Lloyd Webber catalogue, “Evita” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” round out the schedule.
A new musical taking its first breaths at the Kennedy Center is a blessed event, and the prospect of a resuscitated “Gigi” is also a reason for some excitement. But otherwise, it’s a disappointing theater slate for the complex on the Potomac. Not a single play for adults, old or new, by an American playwright. Not a single visit by a major English-speaking theater company. Theater-wise, the center sometimes feels as if it is content to be viewed as a souped-up road house. The sense one has of the upcoming season at this bastion of performance is that it’s underperforming.
The Kennedy Center’s jazz programming continues its upswing with artistic adviser Jason Moran at the helm. This spring, the 39-year-old pianist is helping the Kennedy Center maintain its balancing act between familiar faces (Dianne Reeves, Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson) and significant voices we should be hearing more of.
Muhal Richard Abrams’s name jumps out first. In the world of free jazz, he’s an admired improviser and an esteemed mentor to a generation of players — Moran is one of them. He’ll appear Oct. 10. Jenny Scheinman is another terrific booking. The 34-year-old violinist will bring her spirited, genre-scrambling music to the Kennedy Center on Feb. 13, 2015. And on March 28, 2015, Moran will pay tribute to Thelonious Monk with a multimedia performance he’s staged in other cities over the past few years titled “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959.”
Those are the highlights — for now. Many jazz musicians uphold their own definitions of time and space and don’t always obey the same deadlines as the rest of us. If previous seasons are any indicator, some of this year’s most exciting Kennedy Center jazz gigs are still to be announced.