Kennedy Center follows familiar path in 2011-12 dance season

In Frederick Wiseman’s penetrating 2009 documentary “La Danse,” the Paris Opera Ballet is depicted as a wondrous treasure chest of talent, ambition and creativity — welcome ground for young, established and cutting-edge choreographers, its studios brimming with debate and discovery. Will Washington witness some of that electricity when the company performs at the Kennedy Center next year, for the first time in nearly 20 years?

Sadly, no. What, you were expecting a miracle? Expecting, perhaps, that one of the nation’s premier ballet presenters might muster up the appetite and imagination of a filmmaker who was hardly an expert in the art form?

Wiseman, though not strictly a ballet follower, is a genius storyteller; he rightly saw that the artistic vitality housed in this venerable company is a great story. Its current repertoire includes works by German experimentalist Pina Bausch, Britain’s deep-thinking Wayne McGregor, its former dancer Roland Petit and others.

Indeed, when it performs in New York right after the Kennedy Center engagement in July 2012, the Paris Opera Ballet will dance a raft of works little known on these shores, including Bausch’s acclaimed version of “Orpheus and Eurydice” and Petit’s rarely seen“L’Arlesienne.”

But, in what is one of the Kennedy Center’s greatest missed opportunities of recent years, the Paris Opera Ballet will be making its much-anticipated return to Washington with . . . yet another “Giselle.” A ballet that the Maryiinsky gave us last month in a near-definitive version. We don’t need another one anytime soon. Especially since we see “Giselle” in the Washington area roughly every other year. The Kennedy Center’s planners, apparently, think that’s not often enough, so the warhorse will be trotted out again for six performances.

In announcing the 2011-12 calendar last week, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said he has planned a “huge” ballet season. Really? It’s little different from any other, a parade of old faithfuls: Along with “Giselle,” we’ll see “La Bayadere” from the American Ballet Theatre, “Coppelia” from the Bolshoi, and — in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet — the “Diamonds” section of Balanchine’s “Jewels.” Huge, no. Familiar, yes.

It may be peevish to ask, but since Kaiser raised the anniversary, the question arises: Exactly how has Farrell’s troupe developed in those 10 years? It is essentially unchanged, still a migrant pick-up troupe performing Balanchine staples, dependent on freelancers and dancers moonlighting from other companies. It is hardly a “company,” though Farrell’s great skill would surely merit a more permanent entity. But the Kennedy Center’s support goes only so far.

In the contemporary dance arena, the brightest notes are sounded by the return of two familiar friends: the Mark Morris Dance Group will perform Morris’s evening-length “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” accompanied by the Handel oratorio of the same name. And the Merce Cunningham Dance Company comes through in the final throes of its funeral march, as it will permanently dissolve shortly after its two performances at the Kennedy Center in December.

But where, one wonders, are the dancemakers who are furthering the art? When Jonah Bokaer, a young choreographer who has generated considerable buzz in New York and Paris, was last in Washington, he performed — thrillingly — in the basement of the Harman Center. That was in 2009, and the crowd to see him stretched out the door. A former Cunningham dancer, Bokaer has broken the mold of the contemporary dance company by striking out on his own, constructing portable, sculptural sets and developing his own studio space in Brooklyn. This forward-thinking artist is exactly the kind of young innovator the Kennedy Center ought to showcase.

But it has overlooked even established innovators. It ignored Bausch, a towering presence in the modern dance world, when she was alive. Despite her death in 2009, her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, is still going strong, as was clear in its New York performances last fall. The subject of at least two recent documentaries, not to mention a spotlight in Pedro Almodovar’s film “Talk to Her,” Bausch ought to rate a showing here, while her work is still fresh in the bodies of her dancers.

Last month, I caught the last performance by Ronald K. Brown/Evidence at the Joyce Theater in New York, a program of such enveloping energy that you felt swept along by every step. Why is this proven, profoundly talented African American choreographer not better known in Washington?

The Kennedy Center could nurture dance beyond booking attention-getters — it could fund new work. Take the Farrell Ballet, whose repertoire, if it is to be confined to the existing works that Farrell knows best, will be narrowly limited. What about commissioning new choreography for her talented dancers? Or commissioning work for any number of dance companies, ballet or contemporary?

The dance presenters who put up money for new work are few and far between. The Kennedy Center once had a ballet commissioning program, which in 1991 funded the creation of Paul Taylor’s “Company B,” an instant hit.

The program no longer exists. The center could celebrate the 20th anniversary of this masterpiece by seeding another one. Rather than exist as a touring venue, or a museum of endless retrospectives, the Kennedy Center could reclaim the role as an incubator for masterworks. Maybe then its own artistic vitality could be chronicled — wouldn’t that be a heroic tale.

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, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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