American Ballet Theatre's fitting salute to JFK at Kennedy Center

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 9:53 PM

Jackie Kennedy was a fan of sleeveless sheaths, pearls and, apparently, sailors in tight pants. How fitting! An arbiter of what is classic and beautiful, the former first lady took ballet seriously, and named the seamen's hijinks in Jerome Robbins's 1944 work "Fancy Free" as among her darlings.

That, at least, is the story American Ballet Theatre is telling in the program that opened Tuesday and concludes Thursday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, which purports to feature Kennedy family favorites as part of a three-week initiative called "The Presidency of John F. Kennedy: A 50th Anniversary Celebration." Kennedy took the oath of office exactly a half-century ago Thursday, ushering in, among other milestones, an era of enthusiasm for American arts. Jackie Kennedy's support of ABT is legendary - the company performed several times in the Kennedy White House, and she served on its board for many years, as daughter Caroline does now.

Whether all four works on ABT's mixed-repertory program were indeed Jackie Kennedy picks or not (the Kennedy Center is bit fuzzy on this point, when pressed), the ballets danced in honor of the person for whom the center is named are right in line with his eye for excellence and intelligence. These ballets, or most of them, could easily be on any ballet lover's list of favorites: In addition to the finely etched chest-thumping romp that is "Fancy Free," ABT swept us through the quiet heartbreak in Antony Tudor's "Jardin aux Lilas" ("Lilac Garden"), the bejeweled horsepower of "Theme and Variations" and the intimate musical study in "Duo Concertant."

On Tuesday, however, "Duo Concertant," which like "Theme and Variations" is a Balanchine creation, was the least successful. This was ABT's first time performing the duet created in 1972 for the New York City Ballet (making it an odd choice for a program dedicated to a man who had left this world nearly a decade before). Perhaps the problem was the casting: Paloma Herrera, who is otherwise such an appealing, infectiously eager ballerina, looked ill at ease trapped behind a grand piano and shifting her focus between the pianist and the violinist who shared the stage with her and her partner, Cory Stearns.

Watching the dancers listen to the music (Stravinsky's piece of the same name) is a big part of this work; the two stand by the musicians for the first movement, then they dance, stand and listen again, dance, stand, etc. Here you felt Herrera was "listening" somewhat awkwardly, and then "dancing" without fully inhabiting the quasi-private, delicately romantic mood of the choreography. Then again, Washington has no dearth of "Duo Concertants"; we've been spoiled by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet's fine production, and we'll see City Ballet perform it in April.

The far greater impact came in the other works, all of them ABT staples, all of them brilliant. I don't know when I've felt so exhilarated by short, single-act ballets as I did after the one-two punch of "Theme," led by Yuriko Kajiya and David Hallberg - one of the country's greatest dancers, and one of the world's great ballet men - and "Jardin aux Lilas."

Hallberg could have driven nails through floorboards with the precision and crispness with which he landed his midair turns and pirouettes. Yet he was equally magnetic when he was minimally moving, as when he was partnering Kajiya in their central pas de deux, a passage crafted to show off the ballerina's beauty of line. I couldn't take my eyes off him; there was such a clear musical rhythm in the way he steadied Kajiya in her unfolding poses, the way he strode around her while keeping her on balance to a trembling violin solo, even the way he inclined his head in harmony with her extensions, always keeping his eyes on her. Hallberg's attentiveness and musicality made every moment look inevitable, essential. (A big assist was given by Charles Barker, conducting the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in the Tchaikovsky excerpt from Suite No. 3 for Orchestra.)

"Theme" was created for ABT (then called Ballet Theatre) in 1947, part of that creative era that produced "Fancy Free," which was also danced with focus and verve Tuesday. Tudor's "Jardin" goes back even further - he made it in 1936 for England's Ballet Rambert, and brought it to Ballet Theatre when he arrived in New York at the troupe's very beginnings.

The set and lighting for this Edwardian tale of duty and ruptured love are a good bit darker than I recall; the garden decor cries out for refreshing. But the dancing pierced you through the heart. Especially Julie Kent, as Caroline, desperate for a final moment with the lover she will never see again. (Young Thomas Forster was that lover, in a deeply affecting portrayal.)

The music is by Ernest Chausson; within it is a violin passage, exquisitely played by Oleg Rylatko, that distills Caroline's personal tragedy into a universal extinguishing of spirit. You watched Kent's solo to that music and saw her fight and die at the same time; she danced as if it were the sound of blood draining from a vein.

Remarkably, Kent has been in ABT for 25 years, and yet she has never possessed a role with more musical sensitivity, with such a light, native response and such eloquent understatement, than she did Tuesday. But then, I felt the same way when I saw her last year, in a completely different work. She is an extraordinary treasure.

To quote President Kennedy, it does seem that the torch has been passed to a new generation at ABT, to such dancers as Kajiya, Forster and lovely Simone Messmer and Maria Riccetto, in secondary roles in "Theme." Yet how wonderful - how necessary - that a veteran dancer such as Kent can pull an evening together, can lift it beyond the steps and into the ether, where dancing can look like life, and hurt even more.

This program repeats Thursday evening, with cast changes. Friday through Sunday, ABT performs Alexei Ratmansky's full-length ballet "The Bright Stream."

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