Washington Ballet’s uneven ‘Noche Latina’

Brianne Bland/The Washington Ballet - From left, Tamas Krizsa, Sona Kharatian, Jared Nelson, Maki Onuki and Jonathan Jordan of The Washington Ballet dance in the company premiere of Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba” in “Noche Latina.”

What’s not to love about a noche latina? You know there will passion, guitars, feisty women in black stretch lace, flowers in their hair. . . . Have I left out any stereotypes?

Oh, yes, and lots of thigh slapping.

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All of the above were duly accounted for in the Washington Ballet’s “¡Noche Latina!” program Thursday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. In fact, you could find them all in one work, the world premiere of Edwaard Liang’s “La Ofrenda” (“The Offering).”

I’m offering this: No more thigh slapping, please. It always seems to accompany a wide-legged squat and a hard, taunting look, and the effect is cheesier than a chimichanga.

Liang was not the only offender. Slaps were heard in all three works on the program, although other cliches surfaced less frequently. Liang, being Taiwanese, is at something of a disadvantage in creating a Latin dance, and it showed. But this was not the only authenticity problem in “La Ofrenda,” which had to do with Mexico’s Day of the Dead. I didn’t believe in its characters or their emotions — Liang didn’t give me time. Romantic encounters popped up out of nowhere and passed in a flurry of physical excitement.

There were some impressive special effects, especially among the elusive dancers in white, presumably ghosts. Capping one heated pas de deux, Luis R. Torres knelt on the stage, flipped Maki Onuki over his thigh as if it were playground equipment, then swept her into the air to hover like a crucified succubus.

Gymnastic lifts are spreading like fever among ballet choreographers too influenced by television’s “Dancing With the Stars.” At least Torres managed his feat with astonishing smoothness, so the trick looked fresh. So much of the ballet seemed overly familiar: the spitfires in lace, borrowing heavily from “Don Quixote”; the hound dogs who panted after them; the rude gestures; the flashing skirts — you can fill in the rest.

Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba” didn’t suffer the same credibility problem as “La Ofrenda” because, although McIntyre chose songs by bossa nova queen Astrud Gilberto to accompany this 1997 piece, he didn’t overdo the Brazilian references. With Gilberto’s vocals pushing the pleasure buttons, McIntyre wisely kept the dancing crisp, simple and straight-faced.

The other world premiere, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sueno de Marmol” (“Dream of Marble”), had the most interesting concept: reliving the past in a sculpture garden. Torres, the evening’s most valuable player, was the dreamer who stumbles upon a cluster of statues-come-to-life in white makeup and swirls of smoke. The piece unfurled like a variety show, one group taking the stage after another, connected by little other than costuming and mood. But it was delightful to watch Torres, a luscious mover, who wore the perfect expression of stunned incomprehension as the others swept him into their semi-erotic dances.

The evening gained its greatest heat from a folkloric musical interlude by Colombian great Toto la Momposina y Sus Tambores. There was gentleness and power in Toto’s voice, and a party in her hips. She forged an effortless connection, from a lifetime of experience and from the heart. It’s what was missing from the dancing.

¡Noche Latina!

will be performed by the Washington Ballet on Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets at washingtonballet.org or kennedy-center.org, or call 202-467-4600.

 
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