By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Wolf whistles rang through the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday, an unusual tribute for a group of demure-looking ballerinas in ankle-length tulle. But the motive was understandable. At the successful opening of the center's "Ballet Across America" sampler of nine regional companies -- three per evening -- the women of Salt Lake City's Ballet West left a distinctly earthy impression.
What they danced wasn't anything new: George Balanchine's evergreen "Serenade," performed not four months ago on the same stage by the New York City Ballet. That company had juiced up the emotion in the plotless ballet, adding notes of heartbreak and pursuit. Ballet West, in contrast, adopted a more by-the-book approach, shaping it with care, taking no liberties. It was a clean, honest production. Helped along by Terence Kern's sensitive conducting of the Tchaikovsky score, this "Serenade" felt spacious and open, if not always feather light.
This isn't a company of sylphs. The dancers are tall -- quite tall -- and healthily proportioned (and no, that's not a euphemism for fat; it just means they looked like women and not like underfed preteens). They had a broad-shouldered, highly physical presence that lent "Serenade" a hint of glamour. And then there was the Hair Moment: There comes a time in the ballet when the three leading dancers unwind their tightly coiffed hair so it hangs loose, and inevitably it's a bunchy, stringy mess from being in a bun. But on Tuesday, two of the three let down deep-red Rita Hayworth locks that you couldn't ignore. These two -- Christiana Bennett and Kate Crews -- were also lovely and musical dancers, as was Katherine Lawrence, in the waltz role. By the end of the ballet, you felt you knew these women; there was something approachable and warmly feminine about them. Hence the cheers.
That's one benefit of a program such as this: It brings to town companies we don't often see, and they have some different qualities from the prevailing touring groups. The Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Ballet hasn't been here since 2000, when it performed as part of that year's Balanchine Celebration. It's a shame we don't see it more often. Its performance of Jerome Robbins's "In the Night" -- a piece for three couples, set to Chopin's nocturnes -- was liquid smooth. At its heart was an extraordinary dancer, Riolama Lorenzo, who made you notice critical little things such as how she rose onto pointe as if a breath started in her feet and advanced right up into her rib cage. I think I inhaled with her every time she did it.
Some dancers can dazzle with technical prowess, but Lorenzo caught one's attention with her naturalness. You even zeroed in on the way she accepted her bouquet at the curtain call, that easy sweep of her arms. But nothing topped the moment when her partner, James Ihde, spun her around upside down, her head inches from the stage, her body as straight and elegant as a fish fork, and held her there for a few piercing moments. Robbins wasn't kind to put this move in, but these two dancers turned it into an emotional inevitability.
"Serenade" and "In the Night" are both brooding and romantically atmospheric works; they got the counterpoint they needed in Stanton Welch's "Velocity," performed by the Houston Ballet, which the Australian-born Welch directs. It was accompanied by a vigorous, brassy score by American composer Michael Torke, trumpets trotting along smartly under Houston conductor Ermanno Florio's baton. At times it sounded like traffic on Fifth Avenue at rush hour; still, the dancing remained cool and tidy.
As with the movement, there was a crisp, fresh simplicity to the costumes -- the ballerinas wore white tutus and the men wore black all-over tights; they danced against a geometric backdrop in shades of gray. The focus was on the legs, with formal, academic steps -- and a few echoes of "Swan Lake" -- thrown together with a contemporary pulse. It was a show of strength for the Houston dancers, particularly for the men, to whom Welch gave some sharp, snappy sequences (and it was nice to see true choreography for men, rather than a string of jumps and turns). As lively and fast-paced as the various sections were, however, they didn't jell together in a building, symphonic way, and this random quality made the work feel overlong. Credit the dancers with never wilting.
Ballet Across America tonight features the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and the Washington Ballet; tomorrow, Boston Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre. Performances continue through Sunday.