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ABT's Antiwar Movements

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006

American Ballet Theatre opened its engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday night with a rewarding repertory program of unusual depth, and something rarer still: a political statement. Or at least that's how it seemed, with current events conspiring to sharpen the edge. As President Bush was delivering his State of the Union address just a few miles away, the dance company was capping its evening with an antiwar ballet.

If Kurt Jooss's "The Green Table" does not pack the punch that it did in the 1930s, when it launched its creator to international fame, it remains a work of dark power and moral force. It ranks among the most famous antiwar works in any art form, though it hasn't been seen much lately. Created by the German-born choreographer in 1932, it skewers the bureaucrats whose decisions send men off to die. Its subject is not only death -- though that figure dominates the work -- but the political power that brings it on and escapes its consequences.

Ironically, as Jooss's fame spread, none other than Adolf Hitler courted the pacifist choreographer. After rejecting Hitler's overtures and facing arrest, Jooss and his dancers fled their homeland.

ABT performed "The Green Table" with a stirring intensity, particularly the towering David Hallberg as an unrelenting and seductive Death. The opening scene, with its conference of waistcoated muckety-mucks in caricatured masks, is gestural ballet of brilliant economy. Much of the rest of the work -- the soldiers in battle, the desperate women left behind -- feels repetitive, and the effect weakens toward the end. Still, it was good to see the piece again -- it appears rarely nowadays -- and it was good to be reminded of a choreographer who perceived the evils of society so astutely. David LaMarche and Daniel Waite performed Frederick Cohen's score for two pianos.

Mark Morris's "Gong," which opened the program, left a stronger impression. Last seen here in 2001, "Gong" is not an easy piece to love, but there is plenty to admire. It has a big, bold, theatrical feel. Colin McPhee's music for two pianos

and orchestra ("Tabuh-Tabuhan") starts off delicately -- the composer tosses in some Balinese gamelan instruments -- and grows to a brassy finish, with some whimsical percussive touches that bring Gershwin to mind. It recalls other Morris works accompanied by Eastern-tinged music (notably the Lou Harrison compositions, including one Morris commissioned for "Rhymes With Silver"). "Gong" continues Morris's fascination with complicated rhythms and varying dynamics.

The dancers wear designer Isaac Mizrahi's crisp solid colors, each sporting a different hue, from pastels to neon bright, set against a backdrop that shifts from wine-red to green to coffee-and-cream. All the colors are distracting at first; it's like a crayon box come to life, and there seems to be no logic to their use. After a while, you realize they enhance the edgy atmosphere of the ballet. There's a distinct hardness here: The colors are aggressive, as are the women's disc-like tutus, engineered, so they appear, in a physics lab for increased spin.

The women bring an upright, mechanical quality to their dancing, like windup dolls operating on full tilt. The men have the lovelier parts -- they are softer, melting into arcs and curves, and they partner each other the way a man might typically show off a ballerina. Men and women are often viewed separately throughout the ballet, but the most effective moments are in the silent interludes between the work's three movements, when two dancers come together. These are episodes of astonishing intimacy: Dancing in near-darkness on an empty stage, the partners toy with axis and balance, trust and dependence. In the first of these, Gillian Murphy rose up tall on toe, her other leg extended to the side in a perfect right angle; she balanced for a glorious moment, then tipped over sideways -- still holding the shape of a carpenter's square -- to plunge to the stage. Sascha Radetsky caught her just before she crashed. Despite "Gong's" riot of color and richly overlaid score, its power comes from the unembellished simplicity of its lines, angles and dancer courage.

Two pas de deux were sandwiched between the longer works: Jerome Robbins's "Afternoon of a Faun," using the Debussy score to color an erotic encounter in a ballet studio, and the duet from Act III of "Swan Lake." Julie Kent and Maxim Beloserkovsky made a handsome pair in the Robbins, though Beloserkovsky seemed to lack the proper appetite; there were few sparks between them. Paloma Herrera and Jose Manuel Carreño were well matched in the "Swan Lake" excerpt. Herrera's technique faltered slightly toward the end, but with her huge stage presence and the appealing softness in her shoulders and arms -- so improved over her career -- one forgives less crucial ills. Carreño's supreme classiness, physical ease and gentlemanly deference to his partner place him in terribly lonely territory.

The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra was conducted by Charles Barker.

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