Kennedy Center's 'An American Playlist,' Day 2: Dance and jazz mix delightfully

JAZZY BALLET: Elisabeth Holowchuk and Michael Cook of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet dance the "Ragtime" pas de deux.
JAZZY BALLET: Elisabeth Holowchuk and Michael Cook of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet dance the "Ragtime" pas de deux. (Scott Suchman)
By Sarah Kaufman
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reprinted from Tuesday's late editions

Dream up America's dance card and it would have to include tap, ballet and modern dance. O happy reality: Monday's installment of the Kennedy Center's "An American Playlist," the second of three free performances this week and the only one dedicated to dance and jazz, gave us just that.

There was the breathtaking brotherhood of John and Leo Manzari, local teenage tap-dancers who, on the strength of their synchronicity alone, have zoomed to prominence in a field that sorely needs young stars. There was also the spirited sophistication of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, performing two jazz-influenced excerpts by George Balanchine. And to send the Eisenhower Theater's capacity crowd even further skyward, the hour-long program wrapped up with Evidence, the modern-dance company led by Ronald K. Brown, in a suite of rapturous encounters between men and women that told us something primal about the hopes, longing and emotional release expressed in Lena Horne's vocals.

Hosting the evening and providing plenty of his own pizazz was Branford Marsalis, who, together with pianist Joey Calderazzo, performed original, as-yet-untitled compositions from a forthcoming album. In the spirit of Monday's dance theme, their first selection was a waltz, albeit an unconventional one, with Calderazzo swept up in a romantic whirl, while Marsalis on sax brought a mournful world-weariness to the party.

It was inspired programming that gave rise to an evening of great charm and even revelation. The chief satisfaction was in seeing how well-suited jazz music and concert dance are for each other -- not always a given -- if they are brought together with just the right touch of looseness, imagination and feeling.

"An American Playlist" is billed as "Three Evenings Celebrating the Performing Arts." (Although really, isn't that what the Kennedy Center aims to do every evening?) It marks the end of Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser's 14-month tour of the 50 states, along with the District and Puerto Rico, to advise arts groups on staying alive despite the recession. The programs are considered a presentation of the Millennium Stage, the daily free performances offered in the center's Grand Foyer, yet Monday's event was as polished as anything on the center's subscription series.

Although there was no charge, tickets were required for the "American Playlist" events, and none remain for Tuesday's "Evening of Classical Works and Popular Song," in the Concert Hall, featuring Harolyn Blackwell, Smokey Robinson and the National Symphony Orchestra. But as on Monday, the event will be simulcast on a large screen in the Grand Foyer.

The one-off nature made Monday's performance feel all the more precious. Begin with the Manzaris, who recently wrapped up a successful stint with Maurice Hines in Arena Stage's "Sophisticated Ladies." John, the eldest, is smoother, more cool; Leo is wiry and intense. Their solos were impressive, particularly John's aerial displays. Light on his feet, he was even lighter off them. At one point, he jumped up and clicked his heels together twice, like Dorothy wanting not to go home but rather to be swept back into the heart of the twister.

Yet John had the twister, too: those long legs, kicking up dust, lifting him up onto his toes, spinning him around and taking us with them. But the brothers are at their best together, tapping a cappella, sustaining a miraculous duet with nothing to hold their timing together but their feet and a few hand-claps and a lifetime of shared experience.

The "Contrapuntal Blues" pas de deux from Balanchine's "Clarinade," with music by Morton Gould (from "Derivations for Clarinet and Jazz Band"), had a bit of that energy and a lot of that cool, distilled into ballet form. Elisabeth Holowchuk and Momchil Mladenov slinked through every doodle and twist as if it were their own creation (though this piece, fresh as it looks, was created in 1964). Balanchine's stylish, showier "Ragtime" duet followed, with Holowchuk and Michael Cook.

It was especially wonderful to see Brown's troupe at the Kennedy Center; his deeply felt and individualistic voice -- merging African dance and conventional modern -- ought to be wider-known in Washington. In his choreography, with its full, uninhibited use of the body, you feel something like the life force of his dancers, particularly in the case of Clarice Young and Arell Cabuag, who seem to move like the rest of us until turns and jumps start bubbling out of them. Theirs was an especially generous duet, a back-and-forth shift, revealing parts of themselves bit by bit. It was lovely to feel part of the exchange.

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