Beat Accents the Feet In '¡Noche Latina!'

Morgann Rose and others rehearse
Morgann Rose and others rehearse "Piazzolla Caldera," one of three dances that make up Washington Ballet's energetic Latino celebration. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 3, 2007

The moment those singers in flying-saucer-size sombreros began bobbing down the aisle you knew this wasn't going to be an ordinary night at the ballet. From the mariachi band that got the party started Thursday night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater to the salsa band that closed it, the Washington Ballet's "¡Noche Latina!" was a high-energy fiesta, with emphasis on the kind of soulful, dredged-from-the-heart music that leaves you craving a mojito.

The music -- four live bands, crooning songs from Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico -- was fundamental to the evening's success, adding deeper meaning to what, on paper, sounded like a tired concept. The Latino celebration, as the program was trumpeted, comprised three ballets of widely divergent styles -- Paul Taylor's tango-inspired "Piazzolla Caldera," Nacho Duato's "Na Floresta" and Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre's "Juanita y Alicia." Taylor's is by far the most substantive; the two others are not nearly as rich. But interspersed with smoky vocals and such surprising delights as Celso Duarte, a virtuoso of the Paraguayan harp, they all gained depth.

"Piazzolla Caldera," however, is not as Latin as its title implies. "Caldera" is Spanish for "cauldron," and Taylor's work is more of a stewpot of styles than anything culturally specific. In fact, there's nary a tango step in it. What Taylor captures is the tango sensibility: the sheer sexiness of two people on the prowl with that look in their eyes. The hungry pursuit, the stalking and retreat, the thrust and parry of steps to a courtship. This work boils along at higher heat than any of those costume-driven, big-budget tango shows.

That is, the heat is there when Taylor's own modern-dance company performs it. The Washington Ballet cast doesn't quite have the right edge, nor the necessary muscular drive and underplayed drama. These dancers, being ballet dancers, after all, have a different sort of propulsion, a lighter, stage-skimming motion. But you could tell they were hungry for this work, for its sense of utter abandonment to feeling and rhythm (accompanied by Astor Piazzolla's hyper-dramatic tango compositions, so thick with their own storytelling). Morgann Rose smoldered in a lonely and defiant solo; Jason Hartley and Jonathan Jordan brought just the right amount of bullying bravado to their deliberately contentious duet.

Webre's 1999 work, one of the first he created for this company after taking over as director, has held up surprisingly well. He made it as a tribute to his Cuban-born mother and the family stories she told him about the island home he never knew (she and Webre's American father fled Cuba around the time of the revolution, before Webre was born), and it is imbued with nostalgia and a sense of innocence lost. Webre has not exactly proved himself to be a stellar choreographer in his tenure here, but this work, drawn from his own life, is far and away his strongest creation. It is also notable for its use of classical technique -- the shapes are crisp and clear, and here the dancers' lightness is especially appropriate. Dressed in white, frequently airborne, they resemble fleeting images, flying past in the mind's eye.

Laura Urgelles brought a keen sense of melancholy and shadow to her solo, a delicately passionate role that Webre originally created for Amanda McKerrow, the American Ballet Theatre ballerina who was a frequent guest at that time. Hartley reprised his memorable and intensely acrobatic solo from the premiere; he seemed ever more free in it, diving over two crouching dancers to land -- light as rain -- in a somersault. I'm not sure what part he played in this otherwise tender reverie, but you couldn't take your eyes off him. Sin Miedo, a local band led by French pianist Didier Prossaird, played velvety renditions of several Cuban songs made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club.

On balance, Duato's "Na Floresta" was not nearly as interesting as the contributions by Mariachi Los Amigos, which opened the show with brassy folk songs, or Mystic Warriors, the Bolivian Andean group that played softer sounds in the lobby at intermission, or the Celso Duarte Quartet, which captivated at the top of the second half. Duato's work is billed as being inspired by the Amazon rain forest. Well, how nice, though he doesn't prove it onstage. It was an amalgam of modernesque movement and quirky steps -- and were it not for a pleasantly diverting slew of songs by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Wagner Tisso, it would have little going for it. Fortunately, a single snoozer in an evening like this was hardly noticed.

Performances continue through tomorrow.

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