Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Proteges III: The International Ballet Academy Festival” at the Kennedy Center this past weekend was the back story to what we saw on the Opera House stage.
As its name indicates, this program is the third showcase of ballet students that the center has hosted in recent years. Friday’s performances, by what were billed as “rising stars from some of the world’s greatest ballet academies,” were colored by high spirits and winsomeness to spare, as advanced students from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, the Royal Danish Ballet School and the Julio Bocca Foundation School of the Arts took their turns charming the audience with youthful daring and poise beyond their years. But from their first steps, the 18 dancers from the New National Theatre Ballet School of Tokyo elicited a deeper response.
Of all the activities one could engage in to take one’s mind off disaster, ballet has got to be one of the best, with its all-consuming demands on the brain as well as the body. So it appeared in “Triptyque,” a contemporary work by Asami Maki, accompanied by Yasushi Akutagawa’s string composition by the same name, which brought to mind Lou Harrison’s rhythmic urgency. The young Japanese performers slipped through this dance like silk, all long lines and resilient softness. Their precision and cohesiveness — every chin lifted by the same degree, every arm etching the same arc — would be impressive under any circumstances. Indeed, Friday’s performance was the school’s premiere of this work, created in 1968. Add to this Japan’s struggle through the recent earthquake, tsunami and still-unfolding nuclear consequences, and these dancers’ elegance was simply stunning.
I’m told by the press office that no dancers in the school or professional company lost family members in the tragedy; still, they are not untouched by it. Power outages have forced the National Theatre to cancel performances through the end of the month. The students carried on their organization’s excellent work with astonishing aplomb. “Triptyque” is subtitled “Three Chapters of Youth,” and in its three sections, describing hope, sorrow and freedom, were ample lessons in focus, stoicism and grace.
The Bolshoi academy’s performance of Leonid Lavrovsky’s “Classical Symphony,” accompanied by the Prokofiev work of the same name, was also marked by a bit of drama: The leading dancer was an American 16-year-old, Joy Annabelle Womack. She is a full-time student at the academy, having left a large family behind in Texas to move to Moscow, where on the evidence of Friday’s performance, she has blossomed into a dancer of great promise. Particularly lovely was her fluid and harmonious use of her arms, shoulders and waist. In truth, many of these young dancers danced with assurance and fire — it’s not for nothing that this school is justifiably labeled among the best in the ballet world.
They were, in effect, following the blueprint laid out by the Danes, who opened the program with a mix of tenderness and confidence in “B for Bournonville,” a series of excerpts from such Bournonville works of the 19th century as “The Flower Festival in Genzano” and “The Conservatoire.” Wonderfully clean, open academic technique was given an appealingly soft luster here, with the dancers periodically sneaking in a sly, choreographed kiss with their partners or whispering together like the young pups that they are.
Argentina’s Bocca Foundation was a curious addition to the roster, performing “Con Nombre y Apellido,” a patchwork of barefoot folk-inspired dancing, heavy on the melodrama. A riff on Balanchine’s “Serenade,” called “Destellos de Balanchine,” was disturbingly imitative of the well-known original; it was jarring to watch. To some degree, youth and promise are their own rewards. But choreography is essential.