More Head Than Toes: Septime Webre's 'Genius2'

Jared Nelson and Sona Kharatian in Nacho Duato's
Jared Nelson and Sona Kharatian in Nacho Duato's "Cor Perdut." (By Carol Pratt)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Washington Ballet put on one helluva show back when Septime Webre debuted as its artistic director, and it put on one helluva show Thursday night in a program marking Webre's 10th season. These are his words, not mine -- he spoke them in introductory remarks before the curtain went up -- but it's hard to quarrel with them. This program, titled "Genius2," is one of Webre's brightest ideas.

It builds on last year's first "Genius" iteration, a sampling of works from the top echelon of ballet choreographers: Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris and Christopher Wheeldon. Another assortment of works by those three -- reprises of Morris's "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" and Wheeldon's "Morphoses," and the company premiere of Tharp's "Baker's Dozen" -- is on display today through tomorrow afternoon at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. The program also includes the company premiere of Nacho Duato's brief duet "Cor Perdut," which, to be honest, doesn't qualify as genius, but it's deeply felt and contains some of the popular Spaniard's loveliest phrases.

The lineup was also best suited to the strengths of the Washington Ballet dancers -- their forceful and earthy physicality as opposed to, say, classical purity. What this evening illustrated are the hallmarks of the Webre era: a kind of outgoingness at the expense of technical refinement.

There's a fascinating unity to the Tharp, Morris and Wheeldon works that, since they were placed side by side, vastly compounded their rewards. Each piece played with ballet conventions, commenting on tradition while driving it forward. Tharp created "Baker's Dozen" in 1979, just after choreographing the movie version of the rock musical "Hair"; reeling from a chaotic and ultimately disappointing experience in Hollywood, she returned to her own company and her own style of jazz-inflected downtown ballet with what must have been affection and relief, judging by the optimism and cheer that gush through this piece.

Six pairs of dancers break all the rules of partnering and make up new ones -- one kicks into a handstand, presenting pointed feet to her partner where you'd expect polite fingers; another plunges headfirst into her partner's arms as if shot from a cannon. A dancer melts into rag-doll floppiness, then slices a leg sky-high. Some barely make an entrance before they're yanked back into the wings, vaudeville-style, by unseen hands. Galloping along with all this loose, exuberant abandon is the 1930s piano jazz-ragtime-swing of Willie "The Lion" Smith, played with style by Glenn Sales. The dancers seemed to luxuriate in its spirit and sweep.

Morris gazed into ballet's core from a different angle. Like "Baker's Dozen," his "Drink" (1988) uses 12 dancers, and also as in "Baker's" they are clothed in white sporty-formalwear by Santo Loquasto. Morris's work is also light and upbeat, and set to piano music (etudes by Virgil Thomson, again played by Sales). "Drink" is the more reflective piece, however. Just what is this strange, refined creature called a ballet dancer? Morris seems to ask.

Our first glimpse of a dancer is segmented: She is stiff, linear, like a decoration on a little girl's cake, and carried sideways, so we see her pointed feet, then her legs. She hardly seems human. This rigid image recurs: The women in this pose are held on an angle and rotated by their partners -- laboriously, heavily, because the ballerinas can't help hold themselves up. At the work's bittersweet end, one woman lies on the floor in this unbending position. The death of ballet? Or the death of the deification of ballet, represented by that frozen ballerina? In between was dancing of shimmering purity -- or there should have been. The dancers struggled with some of the work's demands, though they conveyed the aspect of softness and human warmth that Morris placed alongside perfection.

Wheeldon's "Morphoses" (2002) was a colder dissection, focusing on typical male and female roles; the women (Sona Kharatian and Jade Payette) were vamps on one beat, man-eaters on another, while the men (Luis R. Torres and Jared Nelson) soldiered on, fascinated. I loved the moment at the beginning when Kharatian and Payette break away from them, slinking like alley cats hoping to be chased, and Torres and Nelson swivel their heads to take a good long look at them. There's something direct and erotically charged in that look, a measure of Wheeldon's brilliant economy of movement. This piece had a deliciously weird, Hitchcock mood -- helped along by the sinuous Gyorgy Ligeti score, gorgeously played by the Flux Quartet -- and though it began and ended in darkness, it rang with sharp notes of suspense and exhilaration.

Nelson and Kharatian teamed up again in "Cor Perdut," a more traditional take on passion; it was chiefly notable for Nelson's powerful, musically syncopated solo. (The accompaniment was a Catalan song recorded by Maria del Mar Bonet.)

A last-minute reordering of the program wisely put "Baker's Dozen" last and "Drink" first. As light and upbeat as it is, the Morris piece's quicksilver musical and visual complexities require more concentration from the audience than one might have after such a meaty program. The ballet's chief pleasure is that nothing is obvious in it; it prompts you again and again to question what you are seeing. But did the change throw the dancers? "Drink" had no focus. The dancers, particularly the women, looked unsure of themselves, and there were some timing glitches. Overall, the dancing lacked clarity and character -- it felt flat, dutiful and rushed.

This isn't so surprising, but it is disappointing. The Washington Ballet has never been a powerhouse, though it has had some stellar performers in its ranks over the years -- notably, back in the early '80s, the young Amanda McKerrow, before she went on to become a star at American Ballet Theatre. On Thursday's program, one felt the loss of standouts Erin Mahoney-Du and Runqiao Du, longtime members who have retired, though some especially handsome dancers remain, among them Brianne Bland, Jonathan Jordan, Kharatian, Nelson, Payette and Torres.

Webre has chosen other avenues by which to make his mark at the Washington Ballet. By adding works by George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Tharp, Morris and Wheeldon to the repertoire, he has steered a previously rudderless organization toward the best of contemporary ballet offerings -- when he is not distracted by lightweights (recent Trey McIntyre works and other flimsy new creations come to mind).

But the Washington Ballet still has ground to cover in its execution. One had only to see how unfavorably it compared with other troupes in the Kennedy Center's "Ballet Across America" sampler last spring, particularly Oregon Ballet Theatre, a company of similar size that has not been around as long, yet whose dancers seized the stage with appetite and attention-getting strength.

From a distance, thanks to the best of Webre's framing of its repertoire, the Washington Ballet looks very, very good. But in Webre's decade at the helm -- years that brought renewed energy to the company, that updated its public image, that reached out to broader and, especially, younger audiences -- something has gone missing. The dancers can double up on adrenaline and hit us hard with sexiness and verve. But ask them for the guts of what they surely obsessed over at the barre in the course of their classical schooling -- lyric line, musical phrasing, fullness and precision -- and what they deliver invariably falls short. For this company, purity and artistry come second. What comes first is putting on a helluva show.

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