Washington Ballet shows promise, wrinkles in challenging ‘Tour-de-Force: Balanchine!’

Just before the curtains opened in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on the Washington Ballet’s “Tour-de-Force: Balanchine!” program Thursday night, Artistic Director Septime Webre had a little story for us.

A few months ago, when he told the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso that his troupe would be dancing “Theme and Variations,” which George Balanchine made for her in 1947, she had a potent response.

“‘Ay, pero Septime,’” Webre recounted, in an affectionate, throaty impression of the indomitable 92-year-old Alonso, “that’s the hardest ballet I ever did.”

The audience responded with hearty, knowing laughter, which set the tone for the slew of performances that followed: three short ballets, four pas de deux and “Theme.” We were headed for a strapping good time, and the dancers delivered.

But Alonso’s implied warning also held true. The cast of “Theme,” led by Maki Onuki and Jonathan Jordan, offered a respectable first essay of this magnificent but technically grueling work. But as the evening’s finale, this ballet left a greater impression of arduousness than ease.

Credit Webre with programming works that challenge his dancers. As he prepares for the three-act “Swan Lake” next season, proving his company can handle the 30-minute “Theme” makes sense. This is Balanchine’s compressed tribute to such Tchaikovsky-Marius Petipa collaborations as “Swan Lake” and other ballets in the classical style. But revealed in its execution Thursday were several wrinkles to be ironed out, including unity in the corps, especially among the four solo women.

Each of them — Sona Kharatian, Aurora Dickie, Kateryna Derechyna and Morgann Rose — had performed taxing roles earlier in the evening. Also, the two nights of this “Tour-de-Force” program were bookended by Webre’s full-length “Peter Pan,” which resumes this weekend, so fatigue was likely a factor. Was “Theme” too much to ask?

I’d rather see a crystal-clear “Theme,” attentive to all details, than a pretty good one. So yes, it was too much to ask. This “Theme” was a heavy lift. That said, I look forward to its return to the repertoire, for the dancers are not far from delivering the needed clarity. Jordan’s quiet, understated demeanor, moving neatly from pose to pose without strain, was just right and a welcome respite from the showier, muscular displays in the program’s earlier pas de deux.

Onuki employed her considerable technical strength and powers of projection. But matching precision of the body with feminine softness is crucial in this ballet. There was too much push; pleasing lines were sacrificed to unnecessarily high leg extensions, and soft hands and fully straightened knees weren’t always in evidence as she raced to keep pace with the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G, Op. 55.

Still, Onuki has the heart of a lioness. What other ballerina would dance another leading role the same night as she starred in “Theme”? That’s Onuki for you. Or hand it to Webre’s affinity for packing as much as possible into one evening. In the program’s first half, company member Tamas Krizsa showcased Onuki’s fearlessness in “Together Apart,” his first effort at choreography. I’d like to see more. With the atmosphere of dark, unnameable menace, and with brawny Krizsa yanking her around impassively, Onuki seemed like a bit of springtime fluff caught in “Game of Thrones.” Kind of a different look for ballet.

Fernanda Oliveira tossed and turned like butter in a plate of fettucine in her own unflinching stint. Carried high overhead in the hands of three men in Webre’s “Sympathique,” Oliveira, a promising trainee in the Washington Ballet’s Studio Company, conveyed only joy.

There was a good deal of joy in the gala format of this program, with all its high energy, including Elaine Kudo’s merry “Opposites Distract” and “D-Construction,” Webre’s well-crafted first ballet, from 1989, for four men. But I especially relished the luxurious grace of the evening’s quietest work: the “Momentum” pas de deux, created in 1981 by the company’s much loved former resident choreographer Choo-San Goh. Krizsa and Derechyna unspooled their sinuous flow of movement as the inevitable visual match to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with small pauses and points of stasis allowing for much needed spaciousness and peace. In an evening like this one, you appreciated some breathing room.

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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