Smart Moves: Washington Ballet's Stellar 'Genius!'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008

By the time the curtain opened on the finale of the Washington Ballet's program Thursday, the audience was on such a high it cheered for the mirrorball spinning above the empty stage. As the dancers waltzed on to begin Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs," the euphoria that had been building all night gathered new steam, bordering on rapture by the suite's end. And why not? The company looked like a million bucks.

This wasn't just because of the gorgeous new space that framed it -- the Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Center for the Arts -- or because the troupe's former leading ballerina, Michele Jimenez, had returned as a guest artist. What so elevated the evening were the works on view, a classy trio that amounts to a high point in sophistication for this troupe, which has become a very good company indeed. Anyone yet to be persuaded how invigorating, deeply revealing and timeless ballet can be should catch one of the four remaining performances this weekend, for no better argument can be made of dance's immediacy than with this program, comprising Mark Morris's "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes," Christopher Wheeldon's "There Where She Loved" and Tharp's ode to Sinatra.

The evening had the air of a coming-out party, a society to-do in which the ballet was embraced by a crowd beyond its usual cadre of longtime donors and subscribers. American Ballet Theatre stars Paloma Herrera and David Hallberg, fresh from their own opening in "The Sleeping Beauty" earlier in the week at the Kennedy Center, were there. Hallberg once studied under new Washington School of Ballet director Kee-Juan Han and will dance in the company's April program.

But the company needn't rely on special guests for buzz, especially when Artistic Director Septime Webre puts together programming as smart as this, which was aptly titled "Genius!" This was thinking choreography, works of tremendous kinetic appeal but also exquisite craft. Each one expanded on ballet's formal qualities in fresh ways, and with elegance and grace.

"Drink to Me" is the company's first Morris piece, and it is a good fit. As pianist Glenn Sales rippled through the Virgil Thomson score (Etudes for Piano), the dancers played with the rhythms, jumping splat onto the downbeat, or bouncing airily. Just as Morris dissects the music, he pulls apart ballet technique, turning this work into a study of academic form. Women are supported in angled poses like the plastic ballerinas in a music box, arms curved overhead, legs and feet tightly together like entwined pencils; then they are given more freedom -- they flick about, play with lines and turns -- and it's like fresh air blowing into a sickroom. One only wishes that some of the pointe work could have been better formed.

Wheeldon's "There Where She Loved" was lovely the last time the company performed it three years ago, and it is even more of a success now. This series of romantic encounters, to songs by Kurt Weill and piano works by Chopin, has a thread of a story running through it, and in sustaining this running emotional current, the dancers excelled. An exceptionally well-turned and tender passage between Brianne Bland and Jonathan Jordan left the audience audibly sighing. Poignant accompaniment was offered by soprano Kate Vetter Cain and mezzo soprano Shelley Waite, as well as Sales on piano.

Tharp targets the emotional timbre of Sinatra's voice in her "Songs." She reflects the way, for instance, he gathers force in "My Way" and, though you've heard it zillions of times and it is so blatantly cheesy, that weathered voice still makes you think of flying. Tharp's convergence of couples, the men lifting and spinning the women in high, slow arcs, is so right it almost hurts. "Softly as I Leave You," with that oozing soprano chorus, is pure kitsch woven through with angel hair. It's a high-low masterpiece and Tharp plays it that way, with a whirling duet that's part ice-dancing at the local rink and part Tristan and Isolde. Elizabeth Gaither and Runqiao Du hit exactly the right notes of fateful contentment here. Michele Jimenez returned for her testy duet with the eminently cool Jared Nelson, an apt counterpoint, in "That's Life." Jimenez has a unique ability to be fiery and warm at the same time; she is the perfect heartbreaker. Pouncing into and out of Nelson's arms, you could almost hear her purr.

The program repeats today at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and tomorrow at 1 and 5:30 p.m.

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