Dance Review: Sarah Kaufman on the Royal Ballet at the Kennedy Center

The Royal Ballet's reprisal of Christopher Wheeldon's tribute to high-speed train travel "DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse," pictured in 2006, was untimely.
The Royal Ballet's reprisal of Christopher Wheeldon's tribute to high-speed train travel "DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse," pictured in 2006, was untimely. (By Johan Persson)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's not often a ballet centers so precisely in the crosshairs of current events, but that's what the finale of the Royal Ballet's opening-night program at the Kennedy Center Opera House felt like Tuesday.

At the outset, director Monica Mason came before the audience to dedicate the evening's performance to the "memories of those who so tragically lost their lives" in Monday's deadly Metro crash, a moving statement, warmly received. Perhaps she also intended to soften perceptions of Christopher Wheeldon's "DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse," which capped the bill. The 2006 ballet paid tribute to the TGV, or train a grande vitesse, the French high-speed train. It was an awkward choice, given the circumstances, though of course no one could have foreseen such circumstances.

Michael Nyman's chug-chugging "MGV: Musique à Grande Vitesse," composed in 1993 to commemorate a new line of the TGV, accompanied what was in essence a meditation on all aspects of rail travel: the confined mass of jiggling humanity, the abrupt blackouts and bluish glow of tunnels (credit Jennifer Tipton's lighting design), the spinning wheels, echoed in rotating lifts that sent women's legs flaring like spokes and turbines.

Upstage, a sculpture by Jean-Marie Puissant took the humpbacked form of a TGV's nose. Lit one way it looked like a buckled metal skin (I couldn't help thinking of crumpled subway cars). Lit another way, however, it was a transparent canal through which dancers could be seen crossing from one side of the stage to the other. This, along with Nyman's propulsive score, brought to mind Jerome Robbins's 1983 "Glass Pieces," with music by Philip Glass and a chorus line of dancers moving in a steady pulse at the back while wonderfully liberated couples danced in front. But while that work existed on many levels at once, Wheeldon's is rooted firmly in its transit motifs, and is limited by them.

"DGV" also sidestepped the point of travel, especially travel at high speed: to get efficiently from points A to B. The musings on atmosphere and emotional temperature meandered; four pas de deux were all in a searching, circling, leg-flinging mode. Curiously, Wheeldon's achievement in this piece was not in the partnering, where he routinely delights, but in the ensemble work, massing all the dancers and unwinding them at different speeds, say, or whirling them like gears. For this reason, "DGV" marks an interesting stop along the way in Wheeldon's career but does not match his more compelling ventures.

The greater -- and far more successful -- journey was in Frederick Ashton's "A Month in the Country." Ashton, whose lyric phrasing and poetic sensibility defined English classicism -- and represent a peak in dance expression of any era -- created this churning one-act drama in 1976. He was in his 70s at the time, and it was thought his masterpieces were all behind him.

Not so. "A Month in the Country" was, and remains, a living portrait of a family's neediness, disillusionment and ultimate tenderness -- so sensitively revealed in the dancing that, however much the characters resemble prints from Godey's Lady's Book (the story is set in 1850, like the Turgenev play that inspired it), they feel as real to us as neighbors.

An intelligent cast is key to the triumph here, led by Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia, the married woman whose passion for her son's tutor, Beliaev, and abandonment by him, is at the work's core. Yanowsky, a tall, authoritative 15-year veteran of the Royal, showed us Natalia's conceit and frivolity, then, in her dancing with Beliaev, her capacity for hunger and recklessness, and finally the aching vulnerability under that surface of cultivated ennui. She flew through these emotional states not so much with outright acting as with her eyes and, especially, the scale of her dancing, whether brittle and flirtatious, grandly billowing or reined-in with a grief more profound for its sudden physical silence.

She and the others were buoyed along by the richness of John Lanchbery's Chopin orchestrations (Kate Shipway was the thrilling solo pianist). Rupert Pennefather was an ardent and noble-looking Beliaev, though he seemed physically outmatched by Zanowsky. There is a good deal of humor in this ballet; Christopher Saunders as Natalia's husband had the right measure of comic distraction.

The program opened with "Chroma," by Wayne McGregor, the Royal's quirky resident choreographer. Its impact derived from extremes of flexibility and, crazy as they were, the concept fizzled over time. Aside from the 10 dancers' liquid command of this game of Twister, the best elements were architect John Pawson's severe white set, with its gaping window onto nothingness, and Joby Talbot's orchestration of now thumping, now fluting tunes by Jack White of the intriguingly askew rock band the White Stripes.

The Royal Ballet performs "Manon" tomorrow night through Sunday afternoon.

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