In 'Ballet Across America,' Shared Roots but Divergent Growth

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

The Kennedy Center's "Ballet Across America" survey over the past week proved that the country has dancing talent to burn. Yet though the companies were culled from coast to coast, they are part of a small world. More than one company director referred to the gathering as Old Home Week; members of all nine of the companies have various intertwined histories and professional connections.

Friday's program -- the last of three -- affirmed one link in particular, with Mikko Nissinen of the Boston Ballet, Ashley Wheater of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet and Christopher Stowell of Portland's Oregon Ballet Theatre paying tribute to the ballet diaspora stemming not from New York but from San Francisco.

The three company directors once shared a dressing room as longtime members of the San Francisco Ballet. With the program of works by Antony Tudor, Christopher Wheeldon and Jorma Elo that their troupes performed this past weekend, it's clear that, as far as the quality of dancing goes, the three men are superbly carrying on the legacy of excellence instilled in them in their own performing years.

Yet if the execution was one thing, the choreography was quite another, at least in the case of the Boston Ballet dancing Elo's "Brake the Eyes." It felt like an assault on the art form, peculiar and pointless. Elo is one of the most hyped names in ballet today, for reasons that escape me. The three works of his I've seen over the past year share the same herky-jerky style, a crass use of technical feats to pump up the audience, and poor structure, so the roller-coaster ride that is an Elo work goes nowhere.

He is a particular favorite of Nissinen, who has made him Boston's resident choreographer, and so we saw the fine abilities of the Boston dancers channeled into traumatized ballet, its steps and form deliberately shattered and misaligned. A woman's voice barked out incomprehensible commands; there were also patches of recorded Mozart, which, given the fact that the dancers were imitating robots with stiff, choppy movements, and occasionally sticking their rear ends out at us, seemed like a tired joke.

"Brake the Eyes" was not without style -- it was lit with an intriguing mix of shadows and glow, and there were moments when the dancers abandoned their windup-doll antics to paddle and stroke the air with supple legs. But in the long run, Elo's work is the equivalent of hyperactive doodling with a few pirouettes thrown in. Perhaps he's making a comment in this piece on how our fast-paced society hardens people against their own humanity, yet his work, it seems to me, is part of the problem, not the solution.

You couldn't have a more drastic contrast with Elo's esthetic than that of Tudor, whose meticulously crafted "Lilac Garden," danced by the Joffrey, followed. Tudor, working decades ago, far outdid Elo and his contemporaries in radical new notions of how to use ballet. In fact, the storytelling and emotional power he coaxed out of the art form were so idiosyncratic and so difficult to copy that, unlike George Balanchine or Frederick Ashton or William Forsythe, Tudor has no imitators.

It is especially rewarding that, in Tudor's centennial year, this program included his best-known ballet, which, in a brilliantly concise series of encounters, explores the competing feelings of a young woman who, under the pressures of Edwardian society, must relinquish the man she loves and marry another she doesn't. Tudor created this work -- groundbreaking in its focus on the travails of the middle class, rather than on royalty or folklore -- in 1936 for Ballet Rambert in his native England, a few years before he left to help found a little startup that went on to become American Ballet Theatre.

Tudor's works are rarely seen anymore -- they require a level of character preparation from the dancers and attention from the audience that aren't necessary with the more contemporary repertoire. The Joffrey Ballet has become something of a home for Tudor's works, and it's a good match: The Joffrey has always put a premium on individuality and dramatic presentation, and those qualities found thrilling expression in the cast of "Lilac Garden."

As the conflicted Caroline, Emily Patterson made plain the struggle between sexual attraction and decorum, and Victoria Jaiani seemed to embody all the metaphoric imagery of the garden setting in her strikingly sensual portrayal of a past flame of Caroline's future husband. The excellent solo violinist, Oleg Rylatko, brought out the dark heat of the score by Ernest Chausson, movingly conducted by the Joffrey's Leslie B. Dunner.

Oregon Ballet Theatre is the smallest, least wealthy and youngest of the companies in "Ballet Across America," established less than 20 years ago. It set itself a hefty challenge in dancing Wheeldon's "RUSH," an energetic, highly technical work created in 2003 for the San Francisco Ballet and, until OBT acquired it, danced by no other troupe. But the result was a revelation: Here is a group of talented and winsome dancers to watch.

Stowell, who took over the troupe five years ago, is credited with putting it on a serious diet of classical dancing, as opposed to the more pop culture direction in which it had been heading. His is an example other chamber-size troupes should follow -- troupes such as the more established and richer Washington Ballet, surpassed, at least in this endeavor, by the more uniform excellence of OBT. Alison Roper, who danced the central, smoldering pas de deux with Artur Sultanov, is a particularly refined dancer, but there was an unforced buoyancy among the entire cast of 16 that put an exhilarating stamp on a fascinating week.

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