French art songs. What better inspiration for ballet than music that is gorgeous on the surface but lyrically devastating. For their fifth annual collaborative performance, the Washington Ballet’s Studio Company and the In Series presented a memorable evening of dance accompanied by the songs of Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and even Pink Martini.
It was called — what else? — “La Vie en Rose.” “These are the songs that I adore, the lyrics that I adore, and the dancers that I adore,” said Carla Hubner, artistic director of the In Series, to introduce the multidisciplinary evening.
When ballets feature live singing, such as Balanchine’s “Liebeslieder Waltzes,” the vocalists usually clutch scores and huddle at a corner of the stage. What made this performance worth seeing was the seamless integration of dancers and singers, as directed by Septime Webre and David Palmer. The costumes were fabulous, the staging fancifully inventive. While soprano CarrieAnne Winter and mezzo-soprano Adrienne Starr lolled on a picnic blanket singing Debussy’s “Paysage Sentimental,” two male dancers wearing fairy wings hovered above them, sprinkling fake snow. Another Debussy number featured lyrics about marionettes, and so Winter stood on a chair and helped manipulate long strings attached to three dancers as she sang.
All five singers intoned French lyrics clearly and expressively. Soprano Fleta Hylton was particularly devastating in the Piaf roles. Like a woman who has been around the arrondissement a few times, she warned the younger women onstage about the dangers of pairing off with handsome young men.
The ladies of the Studio Company are not polished, but they all show promise, particularly the confident turns of Esmiana Jani and the easy extensions of Laura Chachich and Carly Wheaton. But often the choreography felt squashed onto Gala Theatre’s small stage. Quick tempos and acrobatic combinations ran counter to the grave lyrics of songs like Brel’s “Au Suivant (Next in Line!).” Why do split jumps while a tenor mourns about young soldiers all losing their virginity to the same prostitute? Awkward partnering is an unfortunate hallmark of Webre’s choreography, and in the intimate venue, audiences saw too much crotch and too much labored hoisting. Like the lovers in the songs, these were bittersweet pairings. Adore the music, adore the dancers, and hope next time for an even more beautiful romance.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.