'Four' Plus 'Fives' Adds Up For the Washington Ballet

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008

A dancer at the top of ballet's establishment meshed almost seamlessly with the Washington Ballet ensemble in the company's opening performance at the Harman Center on Thursday, a treat for the audience and a tribute to the company's ascending quality. George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" gained a deeply sensitive dimension from its guest star, American Ballet Theatre principal David Hallberg, but he was surrounded by dancers who delivered the work with a noticeable sophistication of their own.

Hallberg dances the showcase Phlegmatic role in two more performances of this program, courtesy of his connection to the new director of the Washington School of Ballet, Kee-Juan Han, who was his teacher when both were living in Arizona. A ballet master can scarcely boast a finer pupil.

Hallberg, who opened ABT's "Sleeping Beauty" here in January, has the slim, long-limbed proportions so well-suited to Balanchine's lean work, which can be seen as an exhaustive exploration of a dancer's line and how it can also be broken and reframed. But Hallberg plays against his obvious nobility -- his physical beauty is matched by an unemphatic delicacy and a sense of reticence. He doesn't bowl us over with ego and bravado, nor would that be appropriate here. He drew one's attention not merely to the careening amplitude of the role -- though that was there, with his leg shooting up nearly vertical in sweeping, spidery extensions -- but to the much smaller moments, the alert positioning of a hand or fingertips.

The cast contributed a welcome reserve, as well as fine dancing. Elizabeth Gaither and Aaron Jackson set the tone in the first theme, which was especially carried through in Jonathan Jordan's Melancholic variation and Erin Mahoney-Du's Choleric. Lacking live music (alas), a better recording of Paul Hindemith's immaculate thesis statement of a score would have been the ultimate reward.

The linear simplicity of "The Four Temperaments" was echoed in the program's closer, the eagerly awaited revival of Choo-San Goh's "Fives," accompanied by Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 1. Works such as this gave the company a conspicuous national profile in the late 1970s and '80s, when Goh -- the cherished discovery of founder Mary Day -- was its associate artistic director. "Fives" is one of Goh's early works, created in 1978, but it soon became a company signature, and, with later ballets, it led many a company director to Goh's door with requests for his creations.

Along with Balanchine's influence, "Fives" also bears traces of Glen Tetley's streamlined exoticism. The dancers all wear lipstick-red unitards, and there's a clear vertical thrust throughout. (Dancers always seem tall in Goh ballets, an attractive aspect.) What's especially interesting is Goh's use of mutable subsets of the cast, rather than singling out a leading ballerina or couple. Notable, too, is the elegant kinetic balance: There is a constant pulse in the dancing -- even during extended periods of silence -- but virtuoso moves are judiciously employed. A moment of arcing overhead lifts, for instance, creates a brief, explosive feeling of space and freedom, like a window thrust open. Ballet master John Goding and Julie Miles, both founding company members, staged the work -- which has not been performed for more than a decade -- and have kept it taut and clean.

The evening also included Trey McIntyre's "High Lonesome," a twitchy work set to music by Beck and loosely based on the choreographer's family, according to a program note. Beck provides a lot of beat, and McIntyre knocks his dancers around to it in numerous ways. There's a lot of voguish slacker attitude here, but the piece doesn't develop beyond its aerobic demands on the dancers -- Jordan, Mahoney-Du, Jared Nelson, Brianne Bland and Zachary Hackstock. The exception was a solo for Mahoney-Du, who appeared to be the McIntyre matriarch. Her existential meltdown was tender and ruthless, and movingly danced.

Performances continue, with cast changes, this afternoon and evening, and tomorrow afternoon and evening. Hallberg is scheduled to dance tonight and at tomorrow's 1 p.m. performance.

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