'7x7': Up Close and Too Personal

Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson give shape to one of love's many forms in the Washington Ballet's minimalist showcase.
Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson give shape to one of love's many forms in the Washington Ballet's minimalist showcase. (By Steve Vaccariello)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008

Assign choreographers the theme of love, and they'll give you sex. In the Washington Ballet's "7x7: Love Duets," you are treated to perspectives on the ultimate creative act that border on the clinical. Sitting in the audience at the company headquarters, where a studio has been converted into a tiny theater space, you're not just a fly on the wall to some very intimate moments. You're a bedbug.

Love is big, but most of the views of it at Thursday's opening of the two-week run were disappointingly small, reductive and repetitive. Narrowness is the prevailing idea, so don't expect to leave with your notions of romance much expanded.

There's little room to grow anything substantial here: In what has become an annual project, seven choreographers were asked to each contribute a work roughly seven minutes long, which the company performs in its informal, all-white shoe box as a tribute to minimalism (no decor, low-tech costuming), quickie creativity (most of the works were produced and rehearsed in two weeks) and no-frills frugality. With tickets at $60, however, the stripped-down aesthetic comes at a premium.

Simply put, this is not a great showcase of the company. The format doesn't allow for much in the way of conceptual thoughtfulness or quality craftsmanship, and the close-up view flatters neither the dancers nor the choreography. It's not that the performers aren't fabulously attractive and don't have great bodies. But ballet, particularly lightly clothed ballet, benefits from a bit of distance, so the patterns and threads of its design can be viewed in their fullness, so the dancers' audible breathing doesn't compete with the music and so the viewer, when admiring the line of an extended leg, say, is not distracted by red rings on bare skin where the leotard has shifted. Maybe it's a little Victorian to mention, but in certain spots one was inclined to look away out of deference to the dancers' modesty.

Two works avoided this predicament. Amid assorted displays of I-can't-live-without-you, please-don't-leave-me and what-did-I-ever-see-in-you/oh-right-you've-got-nice-buns, "2 Long 2 Love" by Nejla Y. Yatkin and "Last Night on Earth" by Mark Dendy took unexpected directions. Yatkin is a locally based solo performer of stunning dramatic power, and her choreography for Laura Urgelles, Elizabeth Gaither and Luis Torres showed her success in transferring her own strengths to others. Also, she was the only participant to dress up the bare space. The floor was thickly strewn with dark red rose petals; as the dancers advanced in long, sweeping strides, the petals swirled and eddied like currents of blood. Striking, too, were the costumes (by Liz Vandal): white shirt and dark slacks for Torres, and slim, well-cut gowns for the women -- red as the rose petals for Gaither, yellow for Urgelles -- which gave them an air of vintage glamour.

There was impressive rigor in this work, stirring simplicity in bold form. Torres, especially, moved grandly, but though all three danced with luxurious fullness, there was no excess. With a portion performed in silence (or what would have been silence but for the piano plinking away in a classroom next door), followed by a dreamy Philip Glass piano etude, the attention was focused on each carefully rendered detail, the result being a textured portrait of love's inner landscape.

With 10 dancers, Dendy's "Last Night on Earth," accompanied by Apocalyptica's menacing cellos, sported the largest cast. But the majority were just a black-clad blur whirling around Brianne Bland, a sort of sacrificial not-a-virgin. She actually benefits from the evening's up-close vantage point; on a big stage she can come across as cool, but Dendy brought out her wildness, and made inventive use of her liquid ease of movement. Bland also danced handsomely with Runqiao Du in Edwaard Liang's "Out of Time," an overlong lament for a dying lover that swung maddeningly between pungent and soppy, as did several other works.

7x7: Love Duets runs through March 9 at the Washington Ballet's England Studio Theater.

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