American Ballet Theatre works at Kennedy Center attest to a company in fine fettle


Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes, Stella Abrera and Cory Stearns in “The Moor's Pavane.” (Gene Schiavone)

The redesign of classical ballet, the expansion of modern dance, the deepening of the Soviet symphony: Art exploded in the 1940s, and American Ballet Theatre captured that energy in a singularly dramatic program that opened the company’s six-day sojourn.

The play of contrasts on view Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House was thrilling in scope. Two of the three works were created for vastly different outfits. George Balanchine whipped up the crisp “Symphony in C” in 1947 for the Paris Opera Ballet (calling it then “Le Palais de Cristal”). On the other end of the spectrum, modern-dance pioneer Jose Limon created “The Moor’s Pavane” in 1949 to showcase a weighted, full-bodied and emotionally rich new art form.

The evening closed with “Symphony #9,” a ballet tailor-made last year for ABT by Alexei Ratmansky, the company’s artist in residence, accompanied by Dmitri Shostakovich’s bright, snappy 1945 work of the same name.

Ambition was the theme on all fronts. Balanchine brought out the blazing speed and mysticism of Bizet’s long-lost symphony with his invigorating vision of ballet (and, in true 1940s fashion, a dash of Rockettes-style gigantism, the stage filling with all that perky white satin, all those lively bare legs). Limon, with uncanny perception, distilled Shakespeare’s “Othello” into a 20-minute dance for two couples. That ABT delivered on both — the first one pure technique and killer timing, the other all mood and understatement — speaks to its impressive range.

And Ratmansky? How he teases out the subtle unnerving ribbons running through Shostakovich’s 1945 symphony, written in the thick of Stalinism, while staying true to its overtly jaunty atmosphere, and how he holds light and dark in perfect balance, is a marvel to experience.

Company dancers perform George Balanchine’s ballet set to music by Bizet. (American Ballet Theatre/The Washington Post)

As for the quality of the dancing, this program attests to a company in fine fettle, which grew in confidence as the evening progressed. If the speed of the steps occasionally got the better of the cast in “Symphony in C,” high spirits and eagerness compensated. Paloma Herrera, whose natural rhythms are legato, was a surprising choice to lead the brisk first movement, but her warmth of character lent her performance great charm. Hee Seo was delicate and sure in the enigmatic second movement; promoted to principal less than a year ago, she is a young dancer to watch.

Once the Balanchine work was dispatched, ABT came into its own with dancing of deep understanding and sensitivity. “The Moor’s Pavane” shows how the perfect union — represented by the courtly pavane and other Renaissance dances — can be poisoned by rumor. All it takes is a whisper. An inclined head, a pair of lips to the ear, a sharp look. By these simple gestures, Limon squeezed all the tragedy of “Othello” into a quiet, tense and painfully human drama.

Wednesday’s cast was marvelous: Marcelo Gomes as the brooding, violent Moor; Cory Stearns as his wicked, cunning friend; Stella Abrera as the friend’s proud mate. But it was the peerless Julie Kent, as the Moor’s Wife, who stole the heart. Simply the way she lifted her face to Gomes, illuminated with all the trust of a child, made you fear for what was coming to her. Later, after Gomes’s first swift outburst of heat, the way Kent stood — still as a mouse, turned upstage so we could barely see her face, but we could well imagine how the air had left her lungs — just that quiet pose told us of her shock.

Charles Barker conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in selections by Henry Purcell; it was a luxury to hear this beautiful music live.

The luxury was compounded in the closer. The friskiness of Haydn and Mozart color Shostakovich’s ninth symphony, and Ratmansky catches that humor with dancers who toss themselves into one another’s arms, flick their legs up behind them and bounce cheerfully on their pointes. The buoyant opening seems very Danish (Ratmansky once danced with the Royal Danish Ballet), with shades of Jerome Robbins. The excitement almost overflows the stage.

Then an unsettled air trails in, exquisitely embodied by Veronika Part. How wonderful to see this gifted dancer in a role that perfectly suits her velvety line, physical softness and air of detachment. There is melancholy and hesitation in the second movement, and she senses it. Something’s coming that will drag people apart, break them down. Glimpses of this flash by, and Part, watching, is like a guide to — to what? We know what hardship befell the Soviet people, but Ratmansky puts us in Shostakovich’s shoes. Watching this ballet, we perceive the trouble imperfectly. But we perceive it.

This dance remains intriguingly inscrutable. Perhaps its mysteries will be further explored in two more Shostakovich pieces Ratmansky has in the works — accompanied by the composer’s first symphony and his Chamber Symphony for Strings, Op. 110a — which with “Symphony #9” will be performed as a full evening during ABT’s spring season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

American Ballet Theatre

This program will be repeated Wednesday.“Le Corsaire” will be performed Thursday through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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