Washington Ballet, 'Bach' and Feeling Fab

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 13, 2006

If nothing else, you could call the Washington Ballet's opening-night performance at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater a celebration of movement therapy. Dancing seems to have restored this company. The dancers who had carried picket signs a few months ago were basking in a prolonged standing ovation from a full house. The director they had accused of overworking them was given a great big bear hug as one of the company members led him onstage for a bow.

Things are certainly different at the Washington Ballet -- that was clear even before the Thursday night program, titled "The Bach/Beatles Project," commenced. It was the troupe's first performance since a labor dispute scuttled "The Nutcracker" back in December. Artistic Director Septime Webre bounded onto the stage for his traditional pre-curtain appearance and said simply: "I want to tell you how wonderful it's been to be back in the studio making new work with the artists of the Washington Ballet."

There's no doubting his sincerity. Hammering out a first-ever union contract had nearly buried the company, bringing performances, and fundraising, to a halt; poisoning the rapport between Webre and his dancers; and thrusting the messiest aspects of company operations into public view. It took two federal mediators to finally produce a contract with the American Guild of Musical Artists, the dancers' union.

Any fears that collective bargaining would fundamentally alter the Washington Ballet ought to have been put to rest after Thursday's performance. The company has never looked better. It looks, in fact, revitalized. There were abundant flashes of technical brilliance -- particularly from Jonathan Jordan, Jason Hartley and Maki Onuki -- but also an overall look of confidence. The emotional depth felt real. There was no furrowed-brow acting. In an evening of both bubbly high spirits and poignancy, the dark moments were especially acute.

Webre is due enormous credit. He has gone from being the target of the dancers' animosity to the source of their return to form in "The Bach/Beatles Project." The program's first half, called "State of Wonder," featured Webre's choreography for more than two dozen of Bach's "Goldberg Variations." In the second half, "Always, No Sometimes," choreographer-in-residence Trey McIntyre set 12 Beatles songs to movement. Artistically, the result was uneven. But after what the group has been through, the evening felt like a triumph even before the curtain parted.

Why Bach? Why the Beatles? Why put them together, other than for alliterative purposes? One supposes the answer is simply: Why not? The program yields no clues. The two halves have nothing to do with one another, created in different dance styles, with different costuming, different attitudes.

McIntyre's approach worked best -- though he also had the easier assignment. You start with the Fab Four, add eight skilled dancers and you're halfway to a hit. But he didn't solely rely on such ever-popular, rhythmically rich songs as "Got to Get You Into My Life" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" to carry his work. And he didn't just have the cast gyrate to the beat and wow us with kicks. At times he ignored the insistent bass lines. There was wit and playfulness in the work, but also a welcome simplicity. And while there wasn't actually a narrative thread, there was the hint of an emotional journey. The work opens with the wistful, questioning "Mother Nature's Son," in which Hartley broke away from the ensemble and danced a searching solo in which he seemed to be trying to organize the body parts that were crumbling beneath him. This image was repeated at the end, danced to "A Day in the Life," where the angst had spread to the rest of the group.

Throughout, one had the sense of life lived slightly askew. Michele Jimenez, one of the company's standout technicians, danced a curious walking-around solo to the tender love song "Julia." Interestingly, McIntyre chose not to flaunt her 6 o'clock extensions and weather-vane turns but rather to show her as a bit broken, like a bird with a clipped wing. She was flat-footed, and moved mechanically. It was as if the sentiments expressed in the song had drained some of the life out of her.

Where McIntyre's work had a sense of completeness, with all the parts not necessarily similar but corresponding and dovetailing into one another, Webre's contribution was disjointed. It was Bach, blenderized. Every element was needlessly overworked, starting with the music. It began with recordings by Glenn Gould, then came live harpsichord and piano (both instruments and musicians were raised upon platforms and wheeled around the stage by the dancers), then the musicians played solo. There were numerous costume changes, from muted gray hot pants to flamboyant swishy trains to simple shifts and trousers. The women danced at times in soft slippers, at others in toe shoes.

All these changes raised questions, and that was distracting enough. Then there was the jumpy, circus-act structure. Each variation had its own cast, and nearly every variation ended with some kind of danced joke or cutesy pose. So unlike in a concert setting, where the variations would be performed uninterrupted by applause, here the flow was broken every few minutes. These are not long passages -- and there were almost 30 of them. That's a lot of clapping, a lot of exclamation points in the dancing, and after a while, it began to feel gimmicky and long.

This program repeats today and tomorrow.

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