Mark Morris's 'Pacific' highlights Washington Ballet's 'Genius' program

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; C03

There is plenty of wit and enthusiasm in contemporary ballet, but it's rare to find a creation of unalloyed beauty. That was the shining difference between Mark Morris's "Pacific" and everything else the Washington Ballet performed on its "Genius" program Thursday at the Harman Center for the Arts.

Morris made "Pacific" 15 years ago for the San Francisco Ballet, a superior company of high-art perfectionists. Washington Ballet stock is in personality rather than perfection, but none of the evening's works framed its dancers better than this one. The reason is simple: The choreography made them look glorious, illuminating all their most sophisticated qualities and polishing them a notch more.

Here was Earth and sky, light and dark, sudden displacements, unexpected appearances. Dancers swooned and melted with the sweet heaviness of liqueur, showing us their curving backs in half-light; at another moment they were airborne. The strings of jumps that bore the dancers from corner to corner weren't about distance or height or speed, but about pure, clean air.

Other details linger in memory: two dancers entering from the wings on a piano chord, so perfectly timed it seemed they were the source of the sound. And the power and eloquence of the dancers' upper bodies, for the four women, especially. (This was a gift from Martin Pakledinaz's costume design, which put men and women in long skirts; the women's gowns emphasized collarbones and shoulders.)

In the evening's desert of canned sound, this work also provided an oasis of live music -- with Patty Hurd, Gita Ladd and Glenn Sales playing Lou Harrison's spare and emphatic "Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano."

The trouble was, this high-class company premiere was the flute of champagne that made everything else seem like soda pop in comparison. Another first for the company followed: Twyla Tharp's "Push Comes to Shove," the 1976 piece she created for American Ballet Theatre that so slyly and knowingly showcased Mikhail Baryshnikov as a sex object as well as a virtuoso. It has one of the all-time great openings, a solo, danced by Jonathan Jordan in the Baryshnikov role, that ripples with teasing erotic tension, Jordan's head lolling as if he's reliving an orgiastic memory, his hips circling tightly in the velvet trousers of a pimp, or a rock star. (An echo of Tharp's complicated relationship with her leading man, hmm?) Jordan slinked through it perfectly, the silky movement, the hiccupping rhythms. Sona Kharatian and Maki Onuki joined him for calculated flirtations.

The work fizzled a bit after that; it was fun and cheeky but never recaptured the tautness and exquisite character study of the opening.

Still, it was lovely to see the company tackle both new pieces, especially since the first two were in the reliable fallback camp: Nacho Duato's "Cor Perdut," one giant, unrelenting rush of passion, vigorously danced by Kharatian and Jared Nelson, and Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," which was respectably performed but looked odd on the Harman stage -- the lighting was too flat, and the piece lacked atmosphere.

Laura Urgelles, who is retiring along with Brianne Bland (out with an injury), dances her last this weekend, and it was wonderful to see her in the third theme of this work, paired with Tamas Krizsa. Her profound musicality and intense commitment will be greatly missed.

Performances continue Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

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