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Three Dance Anniversaries, All Memorably Observed

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page N02

It has been a year of landmarks: the centennial of ballet genius George Balanchine, the 50th anniversaries of the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (actually, that was last year, but the programs performed here in March and September were a ripple effect of the half-century celebration). This year also marked the lamentable end of Ballett Frankfurt, with Washington enjoying the bittersweet fortune of being one of the troupe's final stops.

As they have done throughout the dance world for the past many decades, Balanchine, Cunningham and Taylor dominated the local dance front this year. An international Balanchine smorgasbord began with the Washington Ballet last January, performing an all-Balanchine program on the choreographer's birthday that featured a radiant performance of the seldom-seen "Sonatine," a duet coached by the former New York City Ballet ballerina Violette Verdy, one of its original cast members. In March the New York City Ballet itself made a triumphant return to Washington after a 17-year-absence with a five-day span of Balanchine ballets that, if not entirely successfully performed, slaked a hunger for brilliant programming. In April, more Balanchine arrived by way of the Miami City Ballet.

Performances by the New York City Ballet, right, helped mark the George Balanchine centennial. The appearance here by Ballett Frankfurt, above, was among the impressive troupe's last. (Joris Jan Bos -- Ballett Frankfurt)

The Balanchine works demonstrated neoclassical refinement at its poetic best. Cunningham's "How to Pass, Fall, Kick and Run," created in the 1960s but still provoking riotous laughter and a sense of wonder from its audience, reminded us in March of the glorious uses to which playground energy -- leaping, bobbing, skipping -- can be put.

We have been, it is fair to say, awash in greatness. Further highlights include the Royal Danish Ballet, returning to the Kennedy Center last January for the first time in 12 years with a new production of "La Sylphide" that paid loving tribute to the warmth, effortlessness and airiness of the romantic style. Two German companies also made lasting impressions: the Hamburg Ballet, with its moving, richly textured "Nijinsky," and Ballett Frankfurt, with an invigorating, bitingly aggressive array of works by groundbreaking Artistic Director William Forsythe.

Greatness is good. But what has been missing is the edge. We have been treated to the glories of traditional and contemporary ballet and have witnessed the best of mainstream modern dance. But what of the fringe, the experimental, the new? These are the works that are more daunting to market and present, more challenging for audiences to watch. But we'd like to give them a try.

Where, for example, is the exquisitely searching John Jasperse or the provocative Ralph Lemon or Montreal's La La La Human Steps, whose bruising abstract work has been praised for attracting that coveted younger demographic? They have been or will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Yet they, and a host of others in their unconventional mode, are strangers to this area. We have a strong dance scene of growing prestige here; to keep it vibrant, what is needed along with time-tested quality are those artists whose esthetic may be less user-friendly but who also offer a more nuanced, messy, prickly and complete picture of the art form.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company