‘Symphony in Three Movements’ makeover retains Balanchine ballet’s transcendence


As part of Ballet Across America III at the Kennedy Center, the Richmond Ballet performs Ershter Vals with Fernando Sabino and Lauren Fagone. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

I’ve been flipping through a January 1970 issue of Seventeen magazine recently, a gift from a friend. It got me wondering: Miss Teenage America, with your Wella Care hair, your hips-forward poses, your hello glow, where have you gone?

Well, I found out Tuesday night. The ’70s cover girl lives in “Symphony in Three Movements,” the big, jet-age Balanchine ballet from 1972, in which Our Lady of the Frosted Lipstick and her identical, ponytailed sisters light up the stage in white leotards as crisp as fresh-picked daisies.

When the curtain opened on a line of them, all Garbo cheekbones and long legs, they earned applause just standing there.

They looked like they were about to speak their minds. Instead, they all took a step, whirled their arms and delivered another pose, and another. Always with a guileless smile. Very “now generation.” Or just now.

The Boston Ballet capped opening night of the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America series with this work. It was not the most sparkling rendition of the ballet I’ve ever seen, though Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili commanded attention in the central pas de deux. The Stravinsky score was forceful and precise; the corps, somewhat less so. But “Symphony in Three Movements” was never dull. It had a clean, modern, air-conditioned look and provided an emphatic example of how to give ballet a makeover and still retain its transcendence.

Dancers from the Florida-based ballet compnay perform Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Les Patineurs,” a program they will perform during the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America III. (Sarasota Ballet/The Washington Post)

These points materialized in my mind with the insistence of neon lights given the first two works on the program. Both “Ershter Vals,” by the Chinese-born choreographer Ma Cong, danced by the Richmond Ballet, and “Almost Mozart,” made for Oregon Ballet Theatre by Canada’s James Kudelka, tried to make something new of ballet.

Kudelka set himself the challenge of choreographing in silence; for the most part, the Opera House Orchestra played Mozart fragments only in the darkness between sections. Also, the dancers, when appearing as a pair or a trio, held hands the whole time. So what did these experiments yield?

A piece that was fitfully interesting — particularly Alison Roper’s solo at the end, a bit of welcome freedom — but was too small in scale and cramped in atmosphere for the large stage. There are just not that many ways three people linked together can move, though Roper, Brian Simcoe and Lucas Threefoot, barelegged in black underwear, worked through their lifts, poses and entwinements with the no-nonsense focus of athletes in a gym.

Cong’s “Ershter Vals” (“First Waltz”) also had its moments of silence — at the very beginning. Four men and four women faced one another with such a pronounced air of expectancy that you caught your breath. You heard a seat creak several rows away. What would happen next? That’s a powerful way for a dance to start. The emotional tension was sustained with the rhythmic rise and fall of the movement phrases, and the jazzy thrust of klezmer music from recordings by the group KlezRoym.

The Richmond dancers were uniformly excellent and exciting to watch. But the choreography grew over-accessorized, with gestures, tics and quirks. The elastic quality of motion, pleasing at first, became monotonous. Cong came up with some arresting moves: Near the end, one dancer dove at her partner like a shooting star. He caught her, lifted her overhead as she windmilled her legs, then swept her around front. When she landed in a triumphant pose, she looked like a flag planted on enemy ground.

But ballet that is more than a series of clever moves is what endures. “Symphony in Three Movements” proves you can have all the kicks — the non-ballet moves, bunched fists, unhinged legs — and you can speak to the spirit, too. This work has always seemed to me to be about air. The vastness of it onstage, accentuated by the clean, spare lines of dancers. The sensory rush of it on the body, as the dancers bounce and jog. In the duet, Cirio and Khozashvili take turns slowly, ceremonially spreading their arms in front of them. It’s as if they’re clearing away smoke so they can see. It reminds me of that moment when you hit cruising altitude in a plane, and through the window you glimpse a bright new universe above the clouds.

Ballet Across America

This program will be repeated Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. The series continues through Sunday, with two programs featuring the Sarasota Ballet, Washington Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre, Ballet Austin and Dance Theatre of Harlem. Go to kennedy-center.org for more details.

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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