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Opposites Detract
Washington Ballet Shifts (and Slips) Into Sexy Gear

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

The spirit and the flesh went toe-to-toe on Thursday night. And because it was flashier, more theatrical -- and wore nothing but undies -- the flesh won out.

The Washington Ballet is not an institution that trucks much with subtlety, and so the opening night of its spring series at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater was perfectly in keeping with past practices of mixing understatement and hyperbole. Still, the result was unfortunate: Christopher Wheeldon's fascinating and quietly metaphysical "Morphoses" was upstaged by Septime Webre's loud, earthy "Carmina Burana." This curious pairing thrust Wheeldon's austere and delicate poetry onto a cold audience, a warm-up act for a thundering treatise on sex as the great human motivator.

It was an odd way to frame what is clearly a coup for the company. Adding a second Wheeldon work to its repertory links the Washington Ballet with the biggest newsmaker in the dance world: Wheeldon, the much-in-demand resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet, is preparing to give up that coveted post and launch his own company, modeling it after no less an entity than Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. (It's especially fitting that "Morphoses" should be the work on view here; Wheeldon's new troupe is to be called Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company.)

The term "morphoses," from the Greek for "process of forming," refers to how organisms undergo change, a potent image for a choreographer. Existential questions were at the heart of this work, accompanied by Gyorgy Ligeti's spare String Quartet No. 1, which was played live (a sophisticated touch that extended to "Carmina Burana"). Two couples in orange leotards -- Sona Kharatian and Luis Torres, with Jade Payette and Jared Nelson -- lie on their backs in a circle at the outset, and resume this position at the work's close. What happens in between is a process of awakening, of becoming. The movement is slow and spidery, all lines and angles. It's deceptively simple, like the music, whose silences bore as much substance as its notes.

This is a ballet that exists on different planes, however. There is the movement, and then there is the dancer. The leg went one way, but the mind hovered in a different space. Kharatian, a sensitive and spirited dancer who is coming into her own this season, suggested this mind-body disconnect as Torres lifted her: Am I a plaything, she seemed to ask with her slightly quizzical expression, or am I in control? Am I following this crazy music (and indeed, sometimes the dancers didn't), or am I on my own? Every so often, a strip of light would sneak up the otherwise solid black backdrop, like an antenna, or perhaps a periscope, peering into the ether with its own questions.

Wheeldon seemed to be delving into the space between action and intention. It's a remarkably nuanced aspect to explore, and difficult territory in which to dance. The dancers grew more comfortable as the work progressed. Payette, an apprentice, is a dancer to keep an eye on; small and slight, but technically strong and, in this work, blessedly well-scrubbed of sweetness.

Was the ending death, or repose, or simply a quieting of the psychic static stirred up by the insistent, astringent strings and the dancers' effort to bind mind and muscle? Wheeldon offered no answers. In the end, there were only four flattened bodies, still and barely visible, keeping their mysteries locked inside.

There was no mystery in "Carmina Burana," nothing left to the imagination. The work, which the Washington Ballet's artistic director created before he arrived here and which the company has performed twice before, posits a single answer to the meaning of life: Sex is all.

It's a great spectacle, with the robed members of the Cathedral Choral Society and the Children's Chorus of the Cathedral Schools singing the Carl Orff score from three levels of scaffolding, and a dancer suspended overhead in a great, gleaming wheel of fortune. Two supremely slippery, athletic solos by Jason Hartley, as a flagellant engaging in exquisite self-torment, anchored the dancing, which was otherwise repetitive and workaday. But this piece wasn't about choreography; it was about theater. And it was about the human urge for love, undiminished and unchanged throughout the ages. The march of time was illustrated by dancers who started out in monks' robes and progressed to Elizabethan ruffs and then contemporary garb; and in every era there were those who stripped to their skivvies, paired up and locked lips. It's a sweet view of humanity. But it doesn't leave you much to think about.

The program repeats today and tomorrow at 2:30 and 8 p.m.

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