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'Proteges': Ballet Steps From the Past Into a Bright Future

By Alexandra Tomalonis
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 28, 2006

Ballet schools are the most private realm of the art form they serve; outsiders have a chance to see fledgling dancers perform once or twice a year at best. Six schools sharing a program is extraordinarily rare, but the Kennedy Center is giving Washingtonians that opportunity with "Proteges: The International Ballet Academy Festival," which opened Thursday night at the Opera House. It's a program everyone interested in ballet will want to see.

Three of the schools -- Paris Opera Ballet School, Royal Ballet School and Royal Danish Ballet School -- are venerable international-level institutions. Two -- Dance Theatre of Harlem School and New National Theatre, Tokyo, Young Artists Training Program -- are younger and less well known. (A sixth, St. Petersburg's Vaganova Academy, was represented by two graduates rather than students.) The program was as varied as the schools represented: a sampler of homegrown classics, a virtuoso showpiece and -- rarest of all -- contemporary classical choreography.

The Royal Ballet School set itself the biggest challenge, dancing Frederick Ashton's "Birthday Offering," originally set for seven star couples in honor of the company's 25th anniversary in 1956. The variations are extremely difficult, though not showy; they're as much about style as about steps, and these young dancers have the soft, clear dancing, musicality and crisp shouldering that Ashton requires. This is good news for Royal Ballet fans, as first-rate Ashton dancing has been rare at the parent company for quite some time.

That's why watching school performances can be such fun. They're a snapshot of the present but also offer a peek into the future. Good classical choreography is rare, and the Paris Opera Ballet School provided pieces by two of its current stars that were well-constructed and imaginative. Jose Martinez's "Scaramouche," for a stage full of talented young pupils, is a wonderful fantasy ballet for children.

It's partly a history lesson: The title character is from the old commedia dell'arte, and he and his friends dress in traditional commedia costumes. The first act is a farce, complete with mistaken identity and a damsel in distress; the second interweaves excerpts from some of ballet's classics -- five baby "Nutcracker" mice in tutus, who later dance a smidgen of the Kingdom of the Shades scene from "La Bayadere," and bits of "Giselle" -- with a beautifully danced tribute to ballet's romantic period. The brief finale, where the kids cut loose and bop around, is silly but fun.

In a program note, Jean-Guillaume Bart said that in his "Peches de Jeunesse," set to the music of Rossini, "I very much wanted to use the petite batterie and other rapid dance steps, characteristic of the 'French School,' " which have nearly disappeared from the repertory. And that he certainly did, in two pas de deux and a dance for two girls. "Peches" is a good example of something old that becomes new, and Bart's lyrical choreography is fresh and admirably suited to the dancers, who showed their company's famed clarity, precision and impeccable neoclassical style.

It's a shame that the Vaganova Academy, the school of the Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet, did not send students, as it would have been interesting to compare the St. Petersburg and Paris dancers. Instead, two Kirov dancers, Daria Vasnetsova and Vladimir Skylarov, danced "The Nutcracker" pas de deux. While Vasnetsova, with her extreme hyperextensions and difficulty in turning, seemed miscast, Skylarov tore into his variation with the Kirov's famed plush power.

The Royal Danish Ballet School danced two excerpts by August Bournonville, the 19th-century choreographer who has defined this company for nearly 200 years. Unfortunately, a very abridged version of the pas de six from "Napoli" was rather flat. However, in the adagio from Bournonville's "Flower Festival in Genzano" pas de deux, Camilla Ruelykke and Sebastian Kloborg (company members, not students) were excellent. It's puzzling that the school didn't include the "Napoli" tarantella, which is virtually foolproof and would have ended the program with a bang.

The dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, who aren't as seasoned as their fellows, made a game attempt at Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco." The New National Theatre dancers from Tokyo, new on the international scene, were exceptionally well rehearsed, and their performance of Maki Asami's "Sinfonietta" (to the music of Gounod, a very pleasant neoclassical ballet and a premiere) was so polished and well danced that the group got the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.

If the "Proteges" program becomes a yearly attraction, it could become one of the Kennedy Center's calling cards. It's amazing what one can learn about the state of ballet from a single evening. This one showed that ballet is healthy -- or could be. If the parent companies let it happen, ballet may well be on the brink of renewal.

The festival continues through tomorrow afternoon.

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