Washington Ballet powers ahead and closes strong

Has it really been seven years since the whisper-thin dancer Maki Onuki joined the Washington Ballet? This Japanese-born wonder has the appealing quality of seeming forever the ingenue. With that delicate frame and complete lack of affectation, she looks newly enchanted with every role. She never plays to the audience, does not freight her precise technique and liquid ease with drama. And she was the star of the season’s closer on Thursday at Sidney Harman Hall.

Onuki danced in all three works: the adrenaline-fueled “Passing Through,” by Associate Artistic Director David Palmer; the pseudo-spiritual “As Above, So Below,” by Edwaard Liang; and “Carmen,” a tale of legs, ruffles and heavy breathing, by Artistic Director Septime Webre.

But let me be clear: While Onuki stood out, everyone was a hero on this program. It’s safe to say even the Navy SEALs could not have kept pace. I have mixed feelings about high energy as an artistic gauge; this is not the first quality you want in ballet, which is an art of subtlety. But the fact is, big and bold is impressive and audiences go mad for it — and there was no end to cheer-prompting physical displays here. Each dancer had muscle power to spare. Each step was taken to the wall.

That is, unless Onuki was dancing. Even when skittering uptempo or shooting through a leap, there’s something refreshingly quiet about her. Part of her charm is how much strength that childlike body possesses. But she keeps her distance from her physical power, doesn’t garnish it with self-consciousness. Understatement is her chief asset; with it, she creates moments of surprise and drama simply with her timing.

At one point in “Passing Through,” Onuki took a skip, a hop and whoops! She was suddenly in Brooklyn Mack’s arms. Later, he whirled her around with one arm, swinging her over his back, setting her down as if she were crystal. She looked at him with barely perceptible but clear devotion and curled up against his shoulder like a cat. Any greater emotional emphasis would have sunk what felt like a deeply honest moment.

“Passing Through” made a strong impression with its sleek one-armed costumes by Christine Darch, their geometric patterns echoed in the backdrop. The YOA Orchestra of the Americas Quartet performed Michael Nyman’s driving String Quartet No. 4.

“As Above, So Below” drew on the Buddhist notion of bardo, or a transitional place between death and the next stop on one’s spiritual journey. Chamber music by Albioni, Bach and Vivaldi created a high-toned atmosphere, while the dancing was decidedly earthy. There were some vivid moments, including another over-the-back move when Sona Kharatian landed on one haunch atop a doubled-over Luis Torres. In the shadowy lighting, she seemed to float in midair. Onuki fluttered birdlike in Jared Nelson’s arms, an oft-repeated and gooey motif that grew lovely because of Onuki’s emotional restraint.

The return of Webre’s “Carmen” meant another view of Liz Vandal’s attractively skewed riffs on flamenco dresses and Holly Highfill’s Picasso-inspired set design. Everyone, including Kharatian in the title role and Onuki as the mysterious, elusive Lady in White, tore through this work with conviction. But the ballet lacked urgency because the story never took hold despite tremendous physical output. Sometimes it’s more effective to hold back, rather than spill all. Just ask Onuki.

This program continues through Sunday, with cast changes.

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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