Best of the decade: Dance

A WELCOME RETURN: Martha Graham's troupe in 2003.
A WELCOME RETURN: Martha Graham's troupe in 2003. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Sunday, December 27, 2009

If you're selective, it's a kind of heaven on earth: Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev -- and Christopher Walken soaring to Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice." YouTube's emergence as a vast treasury of dance has been the major new development of the decade for this ephemeral art, whose past had been virtually inaccessible outside of brick-and-mortar performing-arts libraries. You could say YouTube has also bound us all more tightly together as a tribe of everyday shimmiers -- or, alternatively, allowed us to make global jackasses of ourselves -- through amateur uploadings of danced wedding processionals and choreographed shopping-mall be-ins.

Either way, technology has been the defining trendsetter in dance. Look at the rise of dance contests on TV. But the bad news is that concert-dance programming on public television has all but vanished this decade.

A promising development is the mobile chamber-size ballet troupe organized around a single choreographer, the foremost being Morphoses, Christopher Wheeldon's company. They offer the best hope for experimentation and stimulating new work, as the larger ballet companies go conservative.

In modern dance, however, a trend toward small doesn't bode so well. With the death of Merce Cunningham, an inescapable truth: The only Cunningham-size, internationally touring, single-choreographer modern-dance troupes left are those led by Paul Taylor, 79, and Mark Morris, 53. No others are poised to build the global brand and develop the dancers that the graying leaders of the field have been able to do.

The best

1. The Martha Graham Dance Company at New York's Joyce Theater, January 2003: After a court battle and a three-year hiatus, the company's return from near-demise held great meaning for fans and the nation's cultural heritage.

2. Mark Morris's "V" at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, February 2002: This local premiere, an instant classic, was an unflinching penetration of Schumann's E-flat Quintet for Piano and Strings. And with live music, a Morris staple.

3. Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH," performed by the New York City Ballet at the Kennedy Center, March 2009: Its exhilarating force announced a singular choreographic talent -- good news for coming decades.

4. The Bolshoi Ballet's performance of Leonid Lavrovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" at the Kennedy Center, May 2000: This operatic 1940 production was a lesson in inspired acting as well as dancing.

5. The Royal Ballet's performances of Frederick Ashton's "La Fille Mal Gardée," June 2001 at the Kennedy Center: One of the great ballets, serenely through-choreographed so that the story and characters fairly sing.

6. American Ballet Theatre's "Giselle," April 2001 at the Kennedy Center: In separate, unforgettably revealing performances, Amanda McKerrow and Julie Kent lent the title character shades of excruciating sensitivity.

7. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba's "Giselle," November 2001 at the Kennedy Center: The romantic ballet aesthetic in all its formal and stylistic glory was beautifully honored with a warm, living dramatic energy.

8. The New Orleans International Ballet Conference, June 2003: Historians unearthed the debt North American dance owes to the cultural melting pot that was New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, and to that city's subsequent rise as an unrivaled dance capital.

9. The Kennedy Center's "Masters of African American Choreography" tribute, April 2005: This survey of the profound impact of black choreographers on American modern dance featured works by Katherine Dunham, Bill T. Jones and others.

10. Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Solos With Piano or Not -- An Evening of Music and Dance" at Wilde Lake High School, June 2003: The peerless master, in his mid-50s, dancing quirky solos at a Howard County high school -- the premise alone was fantastic. And the view of him scooting around the stage in a wheeled office chair: priceless.

The worst

"Dracula," the Houston Ballet, March 2000 at the Kennedy Center and, in a different, equally banal production, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, November 2000 at George Mason University: Whenever you see some new, lame full-length ballet, think: "At least it's not 'Dracula.' " Cape-swirling and lots of fainting couldn't save it. Because guess what: The unconscious undead can't dance.

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