Israel Ballet at Silver Spring Performing Arts Center

ABOUT-FACE: Friday's
ABOUT-FACE: Friday's "Don Quixote" was upbeat. Saturday was shrouded by a gray motif. (Emanual Ogdan)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

One could hear the dancers rejoicing from the stage Saturday after the curtain fell on the Israel Ballet. They had just performed a raft of mostly dark and slightly bizarre works by the company's founder and director Berta Yampolsky. Maybe they were cheering in the noisemaking tradition of Purim, the celebratory Jewish holiday that began that evening. But as the audience filed out of Montgomery College's Takoma Park/Silver Spring Performing Arts Center, the dancers' commotion seemed tinged with relief that the three-hour-plus event was over.

If so, they were not alone.

The evening's languor wasn't entirely the company's fault. The dancers took the stage nearly an hour after the appointed start time, once the capacity crowd endured politician introductions, speechifying by campus officials and heaped-on praise for endless donors to the college. It made one wonder if the ballet wasn't in some way a play for the pockets of culture-loving Jews. The least they could have done, one man near me grumbled, was to have a plate of hamentashen in the lobby.

The greater lack of sugar was on the program. The company had performed the upbeat "Don Quixote" on Friday (which I didn't see), and on Saturday it seemed determined to show its serious side. Gray was the evening's motif -- gray lighting, gray costumes, starting with charcoal and black leotards for the heavy drumbeats of "Xta," unitards in pale fog for the pseudo-mythic saga of mourning in "Gurrelieder" and dusky skirts and trousers in "Ni-Na," the liveliest work, with a building momentum and urgency. Near the end of it, as the (unidentified) piano composition by Camille Saint-Sa├źns grew cheerful, the women changed into pastel chiffon frocks and the whole group lightened up in spirit for the first time all night.

This was a sight to relish; up to that point this fine ensemble had looked more dutiful than inspired. The performers danced with a firm correctness but no joy. Standing behind their partners, awaiting a cue for a lift or a turn, a few of the men looked bored. Throughout the evening, the men and women alike lacked a sense of presentation, which was odd given the intimate dimensions of the 500-seat theater. They shouldn't have had a problem with projecting in that small space, yet they came across as unfocused and distant.

Technique, rather than personality, is the chief commodity for this company, completing its first U.S. tour in 25 years. While Israel is known for a lively modern-dance scene -- with the internationally famed Batsheva and Inbal Pinto dance companies, and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company -- the Israel Ballet is the country's only professional ballet troupe. Yampolsky founded it in 1967 with her husband, Hillel Markman; both of Russian origin, they received a boost from George Balanchine in the 1970s and '80s when he allowed them to perform his works. Since then it has built up its neoclassic repertoire as well as a stable of full-length ballets.

Saturday's trio of Yampolsky's creations was deeply etched with the linear Balanchine look and bore traces of any number of his ballets. Her signature contribution was an emphatic use of the music. The severe-looking cast in "Xta" started out like Irish stepdancers, hands at their sides while the feet flicked and lashed to rapid unaccompanied drums. The look was hard-edged, sharp and arresting, but the impact dulled during oozy sections with mournful vocals.

"Gurrelieder" matched a baffling scenario of romance and loss to Arnold Schoenberg's cantata of the same name, and while much of the dancing was lovely -- the women, especially, possess a welcome softness and beautifully pliant feet -- the German lyrics and indistinct plot left many in the audience scratching their heads. By the time "Ni-Na" rolled around, one wondered when a bit of brightness might emerge. The dancers seemed to need it more than anyone.

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