Washington Ballet's Music Out of Step in 'Wild Things'

The Washington Ballet's Jonathan Jordan, center, bounded about as
The Washington Ballet's Jonathan Jordan, center, bounded about as "Max" while surrounded by shuffling and bumbling Wild Things. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007

"Where the Wild Things Are," a dance version of the brilliant Maurice Sendak children's book performed by the Washington Ballet over the weekend at the Warner Theatre, has a lot going for it. Five really big things in particular: the towering puppet-headed Wild Things that galumph around the stage, bringing Sendak's googly-eyed illustrations to life with astonishing faithfulness.

There is some pretty marvelous dancing, too -- not by the Wild Things, who do little more than shuffle and bob like parade floats, but by the other characters, foremost among them Max, the spirited tyke who dreams his way to a wild rumpus with the big guys. Max, danced with great bounce at Friday's opening by Jonathan Jordan, doesn't stop moving throughout this short work by Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre. He spends most of his time jumping, giving hyperactive shape to the wanderlust that inspires his fantastic journey. Webre cleverly plugs in to a bit of ballet history with his Max: The boy's story of escape and eventual return, and even his repeated vaults into the air, make passing reference to George Balanchine's blistering "Prodigal Son."

But there's a serious drawback to "Where the Wild Things Are": the music, and it virtually smothers all of the ballet's other charms. The score by Randall Woolf, commissioned when Webre made this work for the American Repertory Ballet in 1996, is so much heavy, clattering noise. It evokes an entirely different world -- darker, scarier -- from the one that materializes onstage, and from the one Sendak so carefully constructs within his pages, a world of wonder and expansiveness and keen, focused, artful intelligence. And warmth, especially.

The dancers did their best to lighten the effect. Jared Nelson seemed to dance on air as the Faun (Webre's addition), and in the work's one pure ballet moment, Runqiao Du and Brianne Bland's Sea Creatures were a stark contrast to the overfed land blimps.

This show has been a popular draw for the Washington Ballet over the years, but its future is uncertain as the licensing agreement with Sendak is soon to expire.

This ballet was the second half of a program intended to introduce young people to the art form. One hopes that this formula will be repeated, with the pairing of a children's ballet and a fast-paced, engaging first act of excerpts and made-on-the-spot choreography. To my mind, the kid-friendly warm-up before "Where the Wild Things Are" was the better part of the evening, with Webre as affable emcee, bringing a few dancers onstage for a swift lecture-demo about the upcoming works (the company performed selections from Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," "Moon/Dance," by Webre and Nelson, and Trey McIntyre's "A Day in the Life"). Midway through, Webre called all youngsters in attendance to the stage for a quickie lesson in how a dance is made, as he took a few audience suggestions and seamlessly crafted a two-minute chorus line based on the morning wake-up routine.

The kids were clearly enthralled; even more so, the parents, watching this man hold the attention and organize the energy of dozens upon dozens of pre-teens and preschoolers. Even if it was only two minutes, it looked like nothing short of a miracle.

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