March madness came early as the Washington Ballet whirled through George Balanchine’s tribute to John Philip Sousa this weekend. “Stars and Stripes” turns the buoyancy of Sousa marches and the crisp rhythms of military drills into a dandy drill of a ballet, borrowing as much from the Rockettes and the June Taylor Dancers as it does from the Marines.
Created in 1958, “Stars and Stripes” sallies forth with all the world-on-a-string optimism of its age. The midcentury exuberance of its Karinska costumes in pinky-reds, yellows and blues, with their sharp contrasts and dynamic patterning, recalls the new frontier of color TV. In those rich hues, the dancers bounce and spin through their formations with the pace and timing of musical-comedy hours. At one point in the ballet’s “Third Campaign,” where the women flash lipsticked smiles at us while kicking their legs to white-gloved hands, and repeat the kicks to every beat of the brass, it’s like something from “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The stage at Harman Hall was hardly big enough for all of this perkiness, but scale and proportion were not the point of the evening. As Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre announced before the curtain rose Friday, this presentation was the launch of the company’s occasional series of “gala-style” programming — that is, punchy excerpts from popular ballets, anchored by a showpiece like “Stars and Stripes” — collected under the label “Tour de Force.”
Force is the idea here. You could also call it the business end of ballet. (Or just the end of ballet? I admit, that thought came to me once or twice.) Balanchine knew audiences would go mad for the marches, for his ballerinas in bobby socks and pointe shoes, for lines of men in uniform popping up into air turns. Bright music, bright costumes, high jumps: The formula can’t fail to whip up excitement.
In the same way, the slew of virtuoso pas de deux that preceded “Stars and Stripes” — among them, excerpts from “Don Quixote,” “Swan Lake” and from contemporary works such as Trey McIntyre’s “Blue Until June” and Nacho Duato’s “Cor Perdut” — were a tool, guaranteed to extract shouts and cheers.
If the stage looked cramped during “Stars and Stripes,” it looked cold and vacant during the classical duets. Mood, atmosphere, emotional range: These weren’t part of the package. Ji Young Chae and Jonathan Jordan didn’t conjure romance in the “Don Quixote” spot, and tragedy didn’t make its way into the second-act “Swan Lake” snippet led by Aurora Dickie and Hyun-Woong Kim. If the excerpts portion of the program smacked of a ballet competition — and it did, a dubious distinction — at least it met all the competition standards. The poses and jumps were nailed.
Warmth and expression isn’t meant to fit into this equation. But there was one piece with soul: the “Valley of Ashes” scene from Webre’s “The Great Gatsby.” This was an unexpected addition, with its sullen gang of men in trousers and undershirts, raising their hackles to early Duke Ellington. In a program of relentless exclamation points, here was a welcome element of depth.
The Washington Ballet’s “Tour de Force: Stars and Stripes” continues, with cast changes and varying excerpts, through Sunday at Sidney Harman Hall of the Harman Center, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets $32-$111.25 at washingtonballet.org, or shakespearetheatre.org, or by calling 202-547-1122.