Dance review

Sarah Kaufman reviews Washington Ballet: Death by Balanchine blunt-force trauma

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010

If anyone needs a demonstration of the stultifying effect that the national Balanchine obsession has had on new choreography, the Washington Ballet's triple bill at Harman Hall is it. Minimalism reigns. Legs hit noses. Crotches -- cranked open, screaming at you to notice -- hit a new expressive high mark.

But the choreography does not. Here's the takeaway from this program, which opened Thursday and continues through Sunday: The dancers look terrific in the bare essentials (skimpy leotards and pink tights for all three ballets). They can ooze all over the stage like warm wax, they can dazzle you with their extreme flexibility. What they do will make your eyes pop. And each choreographer -- Karole Armitage, Nicolo Fonte and Edwaard Liang, all Balanchine followers -- uses the dancers in the same way, dresses them the same way and anchors them in the same erotic-romantic dreamscape. In each work, the lighting may differ (slightly), the leotards are different hues (red in one, blue-gray in another, red again in the third) and the music is different. But it's clear that when the Kool-Aid chalice was passed around at the holy communion of neoclassical groupthink, Armitage, Fonte and Liang drank deep.

Any one of these works -- Liang's "Wunderland," which the Washington Ballet premiered last year, the world premiere of Armitage's "Brahms on Edge" and Fonte's "Bolero" -- could be an attractive addition to a more inquisitive program if they were accompanied by works that offered surprises and didn't deliver such stylistic sameness. After all, taken alone, each piece was handsome visually and had its arresting moments, a physical trick that elicited gasps, a sustained pose that stabbed through the weeds. Together, though, they felt bland, their impact blunted because they so obviously derived from the same source, which you can trace all the way back to when Balanchine first took the clothes off his dancers and explored their capacities as abstract expressive objects. What he left behind is a collection of masterpieces -- and too heavy an influence on choreographers to come.

One of these is Armitage, deeply steeped in Balanchine's aesthetic while a young performer in the Geneva Ballet. Her "Brahms on Edge" was interesting in spots, but it strained to be profound. I don't think Liang or Fonte were after much more than sex, but Armitage was going for epic love, and you felt exhausted watching the chase. The music was a big part of the problem: six songs by Brahms, performed by mezzo-soprano Cynthia Hanna, with Joy Schreier on piano, both part of the Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Brahms as dance music is a tough sell. Balanchine succeeded in his Brahms opus "Liebeslieder Walzer" because of the depth of the dancers' interactions -- we saw the inner lives of its characters emerge and change throughout it. But Armitage gave us only gloom, all tragic songs, their melancholy reflected in the flat, dim lighting. "Brahms on Edge" wasn't at the edge of anything; it was sunk deeply in the murky center.

Fighting against the dullness was Sona Kharatian, a dark and wandering head-case who eventually landed in the arms of Jared Nelson. The ballet came to life when they danced together -- he was all haunted ardor, she taunted him with throwaway cheesecake poses. Kharatian's cheesecake is more like Sacher torte, though -- an absorbing dancer, she is all dense layers, more bitter than sweet, uninterested in your awe, revealing and holding back at the same time.

The songs cried out for melodrama, and these two dancers supplied it: At one point, they run to opposite corners of the stage and shake their limbs out as if they were crawling with bugs -- a frenzy that I presume was meant to express frustration. The group comes back, still slow, still downcast. After searching around them awhile, Nelson reunites with Kharatian and she flashes her crotch at us a few more times, after which they cuddle on the floor and roll over to go to sleep. But with the dour lieder, the shadowy atmosphere, the torpor -- we were way ahead of them.

"Wunderland," which opened the program, was brighter and airier, with some unexpected twists on the conventional pas de deux. At one point, Elizabeth Gaither arcs into the air like she's about to do a back dive and Nelson catches her, light as gauze; it all happens in a breath. This was one of the deeper moments. Accompanied by Philip Glass's String Quartets Nos. 2, 3 and 5, the brief, fragmented scenes rolled by in a relentless parade of empty prettiness.

Fonte's "Bolero" looked like more of the same -- the hyperextending bodies, the searching for a hookup, the hookup that wrote a new Kama Sutra. Although it began in silence, much of the dancing resembled ice dancing, with high, showy overhead lifts. Then the music started -- the insistent Ravel composition of the same name -- and you think: Torvill and Dean! It was so hard to get their skating routine to the same music from the 1984 Olympics out of my head, but the famed ice dancers finally faded as the ballet dancers played hide-and-seek among sheets of corrugated metal suspended around the stage like pillars (hooray for set design, a dying art). Kharatian dominated this work, too, a tall priestess wading into a whirlpool and managing to still the waters.

It was campy, it was fluff, it closed with a cheap trick -- but it broke up the monotony of gooey swoony lonely-hearts that began their existential journey in "Wunderland" and led us around every curve, every dimple, every hollow of their bodies. And nowhere new.

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