Choice Puts a Damper on Seattle Troupe's Program

The Kansas City Ballet, with Chelsea Wilcox, left, Kimberly Cowen and Catherine Russell, made a delightful Kennedy Center debut performing former artistic director Todd Bolender's "The Still Point."
The Kansas City Ballet, with Chelsea Wilcox, left, Kimberly Cowen and Catherine Russell, made a delightful Kennedy Center debut performing former artistic director Todd Bolender's "The Still Point." (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008

The first impression is everything for the nine ballet companies in town for the Kennedy Center's "Ballet Across America" program. They're dancing just one work apiece in the Opera House this week, so you'd expect they would choose choreography that makes them look wonderful, particularly as the troupes are sharing programs. There's a whiff of competition surrounding this showcase.

So how to explain Pacific Northwest Ballet's peculiar choice? The Seattle company, led by the esteemed former New York City Ballet star Peter Boal, made a less-than-stellar showing by performing Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato's "Jardí Tancat" on Thursday, at the opening of the second of "Ballet Across America's" three programs. In this work based on Catalonian folk tales, six barefoot dancers bang out their melancholy by slapping the stage and their thighs; they squat and roll around and fake-cry into their hands, accompanied by a recording of Maria del Mar Bonet's tear-stained folk songs.

The dancers playact well, and you can't fault their somersaults, yet it's an unmoving spectacle because it feels slick and inauthentic. Indeed, "Jardí Tancat" (the name means "closed garden" in Catalonian) owes more to reductive flashes of Martha Graham and José Limón techniques -- the folded-in torso contractions, the rigidly outstretched limbs -- than to peasants padding in the dust.

However, for all its oozy, overstated sentimentality -- or perhaps because of it -- Duato's work has its fans; his strong audience appeal made him a darling of the dance world in the 1980s and '90s. This was especially true because works like "Jardí Tancat" (1983) were based on flat-footed contemporary moves, so troupes of varying abilities could put them over. But it remains a mystery why the large and well-regarded Pacific Northwest Ballet decided to announce itself with an unsophisticated work that has little to do with the ballet technique in which it specializes. Nor does the work make use of the Opera House Orchestra, or teach us much about the company except that it is years behind on a trend.

Compare this with the approach taken by the Kansas City Ballet, which for its Kennedy Center debut took the risk of performing an unfamiliar small-scale work rather than something bold and declamatory, and by doing so told us a great deal about its taste, confidence, artistry and values. "The Still Point," accompanied by the first three movements of Debussy's delicately agitated String Quartet No. 1 in G, was created by Todd Bolender back in 1955, when he was a member of the New York City Ballet. He went on to become a longtime artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, where he imported George Balanchine's aesthetic and many of his works, and where Bolender is credited with carving out a strong identity for this ballet company "in the hinterlands," as a company spokeswoman put it.

For the past 12 years, the company has been directed by William Whitener, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer and onetime director of Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Bolender died two years ago, but his contributions are still respected; the company's new building will be named for him. That's good to know; it speaks well for the troupe that it's not trying to radically reinvent itself. Particularly when the cast of six, led by Kimberly Cowen and Juan Pablo Trujillo, danced "The Still Point" with such fine intensity. This is a watercolor of a ballet -- ladies in sherbet hues, men in slacks, an atmosphere of misty breezes on the heath -- and while it is no masterpiece, it is a delight to watch.

There is a delicious tension between the outpouring of the strings (conducted by Ramona Pansegrau) and the hushed anxiety of the dancing. Cowen's character is in the midst of some kind of breakdown, and no one can get through to her but Trujillo, a modest hero armed with sympathy and a nice, clean line. At the end, he lies down on his back and pulls Cowen close; he raises a hand and she clasps it gratefully, and that's all it takes to leave us with a lingering, surprisingly poignant image of the universal antidote of love.

Love in far louder colors is the subject of Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs," with which the Washington Ballet capped the evening (in costumes borrowed from Kansas City Ballet, as just one example of the thick interconnections among the various troupes on view this week). Having just seen Jerome Robbins's view of romance in "In the Night," performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet on Tuesday, I got to wondering if Tharp's 1982 suite might have been a response. As in the Robbins, here are various stages of romance, presented couple by couple: There is tenderly mellow love; hard-driving, combative love; and several flavors of hot and smoky passion.

It didn't unfurl too smoothly at first; Tharp's tricky ballroom-dancing-with-a-twist got the better of some of the dancers. Among the standouts were Erin Mahoney-Du and Luis R. Torres as the couple with the most adventurous sex life, dancing with flinty nonchalance -- and perfect comic timing -- in "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." Adventure of another sort figured in the "That's Life" duet, with Jared Nelson and the wildcat Brianne Bland, and if every time she catapulted into his arms the catch wasn't flawless, they were all gutsy moments. And I'd rather see a daring effort than a tame one.

This program repeats this afternoon and evening. Friday's program, with the Boston Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre, will be repeated tomorrow afternoon.

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