Ballet Across America: Smaller troupes stand tall at Kennedy Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010

As a snapshot of ballet in this country, the six-day, nine-company Ballet Across America series at the Kennedy Center, which concluded Sunday, offered some good news but little revelation. The primary take-away is that whether you're talking Memphis or Tulsa, Seattle or Charlotte, there's an impressively high level of skill among the nation's ballet dancers.

The companies are also overwhelmingly white and dotted with Europeans -- as they have always been. Diversity in ballet remains a serious problem for the small companies as well as the large, on the coasts as well as in the heartland. In the 21st century, we can put a black man in the White House, but as last week's survey shows, we can't put a black ballerina in the Opera House. Clearly, not enough work is being done to foster African American dancers. But with public money in their coffers, ballet companies -- and the local, state and federal funders -- need to make equal opportunity in the dancer ranks a priority.

That's the story on the dancers. But what did the series tell us about their leaders? Here was the surprise: The last shall be first. In terms of repertoire, the greatest rewards came from the smallest companies, which appear to be doing the most creative work with the fewest resources: First, North Carolina Dance Theatre with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's "Shindig" and a live bluegrass band, then Ballet Memphis with Trey McIntyre's emotional take on Roy Orbison. Friday, it was the tiny, 10-dancer Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Jorma Elo's "Red Sweet."

Elo's jiggly stylings are the hottest fad among the big ballet companies, and like most fads, his work tends to be forcefully cute -- and lives in the memory only temporarily. You don't mull over its depths, or even its surfaces, after it is over (at least I don't). But the piece he created in 2008 for eight of Aspen's dancers was different. For one thing, it was well served by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra's performance of the Vivaldi selections, conducted by James Feddeck; Oleg Rylatko's violin solo took hold of your heart and never let go. That's the element that lingers, and it still gives me chills.

At first, however, the dancing looked like every other Elo piece I've seen: a little balletic sex appeal pockmarked by random jolts, robotic club moves and physical play apropos of nothing at all. It clanged against the music.

Then came the central pas de deux, which proved unexpectedly moving. It was all about incomplete expression; the dancers barely looked at each other, noodled around in separate corners, came together awkwardly. There was something tender in their fumbling, a warmth and poignancy that was carried out in the finale with the full cast. It stemmed from seeing the dancers as people rather than art objects, and from that lonesome violin, touching something human and sincere. I hope Elo continues to make ballets with fewer jokes and more honesty. Maybe, for him, the small troupe is the way forward.

Nacho Duato was the Jorma Elo of a few years ago, the hot property everyone wanted. He may also be the one who started the unfortunate trend, furthered by such choreographers as Elo, Stanton Welch and Edwaard Liang, of making ballet dancers look like they suffer from some twitchy disorder of the central nervous system. Duato's 1996 "Por Vos Muero" ("For Thee I Die"), danced by Tulsa Ballet, is emblematic of what made him so popular: The dancers are nearly naked, then clothed, then nearly naked again; there's sex, repression and more sex; and, tossed in for good measure, something vague about the church. This work, accompanied by Spanish music of the 15th and 16th centuries and some spoken text, was one of the few in the entire series to have a theatrical dimension, with the dancers swinging around incense burners and masks, and the stage hung with heavy drapes.

Liang strikes me as the aggregate of today's ballet trends. His "Age of Innocence," for the Joffrey Ballet, uses music by the perennial favorite Philip Glass, as well as Thomas Newman. The choreography is athletic and fast-paced, barely letting the dancers catch a breath. Their stretchiness is a show unto itself -- except when the dancers are crumpling to the ground in a repeated move that looked unkind, and trouble for their knees.

Talented as this large cast was, there was a synthetic feel to the dancing -- every move was splayed out, pushed to extremes. Where were the fruitful pauses, the space for an image to register? But then again, if you keep moving, maybe no one will notice there isn't a whole lot going on.

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