At Kennedy Center, three new takes on ballet offer two revelations

(Matthew Murphy) - Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers in “Gloria.”

(Matthew Murphy) - Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers in “Gloria.”

You’ll never guess what I saw at the Kennedy Center on Friday night: a new ballet that actually took ballet as its subject and didn’t blow it to pieces.

Here were tutus and tiaras and the whole nine yards — make that 900 yards, more likely, of satin and tulle. But the pleasure of “Rhapsodic Dances,” created by Sasha Janes for North Carolina Dance Theatre, went beyond its vibrant costumes and luxurious candle-glow lighting. This work didn’t lampoon ballet or yank it out of shape. With a sure, firm hand and knowing wit, Janes infused classical technique with brisk energy to evoke ballroom glamour and romances both smoldering and overheated.

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Dancing — not just flung-open poses and lifts, as in so much of contemporary ballet, but logical and unexpected streams of movement — simply poured out of the cast of five couples. It hurtled along the silvery, thundering gush of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” a wild musical ride to a cosmic circus and back that was its own treat. Arkadiy Figlin was the remarkable piano soloist, alongside the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under the baton of Grant Cooper.

Janes is a choreographer to watch. The last time he appeared in the Kennedy Center’s “Ballet Across America” series, he was dancing in it as part of the 2010 cast of Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s bluegrass romp “Shindig.” With “Rhapsodic Dances,” he trumpeted his current role as associate artistic director of the North Carolina troupe with a flourish.

New takes on ballet was the theme of Friday’s program. Ballet Austin’s “Hush,” created by Artistic Director Stephen Mills in 2005, was the most conventional. Soft and amorphous, it unspooled in a sustained and somewhat dull flow, accompanied by Philip Glass’s “Tirol” Concerto. There was little in it that lodged in memory.

Dance Theatre of Harlem’s “Return,” by Robert Garland, was both an exuberant finish and a promising start. The newly launched company was in terrific form after a week of performances in Tel Aviv. That trip is a great story in itself, encapsulating the rightness of the company’s rebirth after a nine-year hiatus. It was the compamy’s first appearance in Israel in 32 years, and the planning for it began some 15 years ago. Then the company collapsed under debt. Now, with Virginia Johnson as artistic director and a small but animated raft of young dancers, old bonds are being re-energized.

“Return” is one of these. Created in 1999, it’s a crowd-pleasing mix of high and low that in hands less capable than Garland’s might be mired in cliches, but it isn’t. It is always about dancing, and it has a strong idea at its core: that the dancing body can inhabit different modes while building and deepening the emotional content. Neoclassical and street steps are mixed in freely, but as the dancers anticipate and respond to James Brown’s mounting tension — his “Super Bad” unleashing a super display of back flips and fouette turns — you lose track of the dance distinctions, as well as those of class and race that this mostly African American ballet company makes its audience confront.

Instead, all you see is one big party.

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