The Future of Ballet Steps It Up

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008

The news was all good coming out of this past weekend's "Proteges II" program at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where audiences saw ballet's future take shape.

More uniformly excellent than the first "Proteges" program two years ago, Friday's performance was a tribute to the vastly underrated power of the teenager -- most of the astonishingly mature dancers were in their high school years -- and to intelligent training at four of the world's top academies: the Royal Ballet School, the Paris Opera Ballet School, the New York City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet and Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

This was unquestionably a jewel of the season, with the young dancers giving classical ballet its due with that sense of fluttering anticipation that tends to wear off after a few years in the professional ranks. As a bonus, the works performed were as refreshing as the dancers themselves, even though they constituted one of the most staunchly old-fashioned mixed-repertory programs seen here in years. Ballet's formal values were given glorious affirmation in works by British choreographer David Bintley and France's Leo Staats, both of whom are little known here, as well as in classics by George Balanchine and Marius Petipa. You might even call the "Proteges" program a throwback, a celebration of ballet as it looked when the finely shaped unspooling of steps and their musical phrasing were at the core of the art form, before contemporary choreographers became obsessed with rubbery extremes of limbs and joints.

Each school acquitted itself admirably, but the 12 students from London's Royal Ballet School, who performed first, set an unmatched standard for stylistic unity and relaxed joy. They danced Bintley's "Galanteries," accompanied by a Mozart divertimento and serenade, a plotless 1986 work created for the Royal Ballet. "Galanteries" revels in the soft side of ballet, its billowing, rippling fluidity, and was an excellent frame for the young aspirants, who looked light as air dancing it. They also looked happy, particularly Antoinette Brooks-Daw, who was sunny and charmingly earnest in a section with the well-mannered Andrew Peasgood and Yoshihisa Arai. They typified the full-bodied nature of this school's dancing, the swift footwork, a lyric responsiveness in the upper back and a natural freedom of the head.

Tall, space-hungry Delia Mathews brought a slow burn to her pas de deux with Dylan Gutierrez, winding and unwinding around him like a length of silk. At one point she rolled up and onto his back as if she were a tumbleweed; her momentum almost sent her plunging to the floor. Unbowed by her mistake, she continued to dance big. Here's a girl to watch.

It was a stroke of genius to pair Staats's 1925 "Soir de Fete," danced by the Paris Opera students, with Balanchine's 1941 "Concerto Barocco," danced by the School of American Ballet. Balanchine admired Staats, a Paris Opera ballet master (and the one who invented the company's "Grand Défilé," its showy promenade of all ranks of dancers that continues to kick off most seasons). Staats's abstract and musically astute works showed off ballet technique in bold new ways, and watching "Soir de Fete" one sees the threads that Balanchine went on to weave into his later symphonic masterpieces.

This performance of "Soir de Fete" was somewhat streamlined, lacking its garden pavilion set and an ensemble of little girls, but it was danced with clarity and courage, accompanied by Delibes' enchanting score (from "La Source," some of the same music used by Balanchine in his ballet of the same name). Sparks don't always fly among dancers in student performances, but in the leading role here, Leonore Baulac made plain who was boss in her pas de deux, giving her partner a scorching look when he missed her hand on a turn and crisply ticking off a series of knotty technical feats in an extended solo.

If you're looking for traces of national style in this endeavor, it's this: The English are self-possessed and gracious; the French are formal and a bit snappish; and the Americans bear a straightforward, untouchable cool -- at least, the serenely commanding leading dancers Megan Johnson and Lydia Wellington, who will soon be apprenticing with City Ballet.

And the Russians? As you would expect, proud, upright and confident that their entry, the "Grand Pas Classique" from Petipa's "Paquita," would bowl the audience over with its parade of dancers in impressive solo turns. Here, too, was the answer to a question dogging me all evening: What has happened to beautiful pointe work? Nearly every other part of the dancing body looked well tended to among the other academies' students -- placement of the legs, turnout of the hips, quiet shoulders -- but there were disappointingly few examples of gorgeously supple arches. Is forming a flexible and nimble foot falling out of favor in the leading classrooms? Not among the Bolshoi girls, who delineated steps as a quill pen skims across the page.

"Proteges" is the brainchild of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, and to my knowledge there's not another program like it in the country. The center would do well to keep it up. Where conformity has largely replaced individuality and national style among the professional troupes, their schools tell another story.

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