1997-98 Arts Preview

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It's a Mod, Mod World:
Contemporary Works Overtake the Classics on the Fall Schedule
"Don Quixote" by the Houston Ballet with Lauren Anderson and Carlos Acosta.
Photo by Drew Donovan

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997

It's become the balletomane's lament: There's little innovation in the classical dance world these days, little of more than passing interest. And indeed, the presentations on local stages this season appear to bear this out.

Yet while ballet fans may be left wanting more, devotees of modern dance have a lot to cheer for this fall, with a nonstop parade of world premieres, new groups, old favorites and a taste of movement from around the world.

You'll have to act fast to catch most performances, as stopovers seldom exceed a handful of evenings. But the peak of the season may well be the longest-running production-the national tour of "Bring In 'da Noise! Bring In 'da Funk!" rumbles into the National Theatre for three weeks starting Nov. 5. The four-time Tony-winning tap musical, choreographed by the sensational Savion Glover, boasts a couple of local dancers in its Broadway cast. Casting information for the tour isn't yet available, but performers will have to be standouts to keep up with Glover's hard-hitting choreography and impassioned recounting of the African American experience in dance, poetry and music.

As for the customarily glamorous world of ballet, the Kennedy Center has been steadily cutting back its programming, with far fewer weeks of performances than the typical eight or 10 weeks of a few years ago, and upcoming offerings bear the marks of further measures to trim expenses. There are no imports among the five companies slated to appear in the Opera House for the 1997-98 "All-American" season, though we'll still be seeing some sturdy headliners, with the Houston Ballet, Eliot Feld's Ballet Tech and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago this fall.

But the season still has much in store. After a six-year absence, the Houston Ballet, appearing Oct. 14-19, presents the East Coast premiere of director Ben Stevenson's evening-length "Don Quixote." A vehicle for technical virtuosos as it is, this "Don Q" promises extra firepower: Stevenson tailor-made the ballet for much-hailed principals Carlos Acosta and Lauren Anderson. To open their engagement, the company will perform a trio of short works, including the inventive Jiri Kylian's "Sinfonietta."

You'd better get your classical fix from the Texans, for Eliot Feld has always stuck to his own path, teetering on the boundaries of ballet. He played Baby-John in the film of "West Side Story," and has since never lost a certain youthfulness and irreverence in his outlook and artistic efforts, which, with his former company Feld Ballets/NY, have been considerable. He's also kept a focus on kids: Twenty years ago Feld began offering tuition-free training to gifted public school children in his native New York; recently he formed a company of the most talented graduates. That group, Ballet Tech, comes to the Kennedy Center ready for a good time with works such as "Doo Dah Day," "Meshugana Dance" and "Yo Shakespeare."

The Joffrey Ballet comes armed with well-known favorites for its appearances. The company presents mixed repertory Dec. 9-14 that delves into the archives of dance with works dating from Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (Vaslav Nijinsky's "The Afternoon of a Faun" and Leonide Massine's "Parade") as well as contemporary pieces by director Gerald Arpino. From Dec. 16 to 21 the company performs its lush turn-of-the-century version of "The Nutcracker."

Our own Washington Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater later this month with works by Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor, Dutchman Nils Christe and company member John Goding. The more intriguing event, however, is "An Evening of Choo-San Goh," some of the finest works by the company's former resident choreographer performed at the Warner Theatre in October, in honor of the 10th anniversary of Goh's death. It's fair to say the company has not been the same since Goh's passing. A choreographer of international stature, he lifted the company above the average regional fare with extraordinarily difficult, mysterious and alluring works such as "In the Glow of the Night" and "Double Contrasts." These, together with "Synonyms" and the pas de deux from "Momentum," will be on the program. It promises to be both a tribute to a beloved master and a retrospective of past glory.

If you want to know what's going on in ballet beyond these shores, you've only got one chance: the St. Petersburg Ballet comes to Montgomery College's Performing Arts Center in Rockville on Oct. 25 with the usual pas de deux and excerpts. In another one-night stand, the Miami City Ballet slips into George Mason University Oct. 15.

Look to the modern dancemakers for the new works and star turns. A pair of world premieres are on the books from major players. As part of the Kennedy Center's "America Dancing" series of contemporary groundbreakers, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company unveils "We Set Out Early . . . Visibility Was Poor" Oct. 31-Nov. 2, in a presentation with the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS). In keeping with past opuses (remember his "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin," with its finale of naked non-dancer Washingtonians? Or his controversial "Still/Here," on surviving disease?), Jones takes on Big Ideas in this multimedia work. With music by Stravinsky and Latvian composer Peteris Vasks and the use of video and spoken text, the piece examines notions of memory, history and the human desire for continuity.

Later this month the Parsons Dance Company premieres "Channeling" at George Mason University, a look at television's influence on American culture. (This production is said to involve yards and yards of cellophane.)

Also of note at George Mason is the Philip Glass-Susan Marshall dance opera "Les Enfants Terribles," after the Jean Cocteau novel. This is the final installment of Glass's Cocteau-inspired operatic trilogy (which included "Orphee" and "La Belle et la Bete"), and the first in which he has enlisted a choreographer to bring dancers onstage with the singers.

Dance Place is host to a stimulating raft of local and out-of-town performers nearly every weekend throughout the year; worth a special look are programs titled "After Sorrow" and "Do We Dare," both co-presentations with WPAS. The first is a production of the established experimental theater director Ping Chong, together with choreographer Muna Tseng and Hong Kong composer Josef Fung. The three focus on their Chinese roots and touch on life in contemporary Vietnam.

The latter is the oddball pairing of Lawrence Goldhuber and Heidi Latsky, a big boulder of a guy and a trim, tiny woman. They're more than just a Mutt-and-Jeff combo, though. Both are former members of Bill T. Jones's company who have split off to create their own work. Such juxtapositions are the dance world's equivalent of non-traditional casting; many contemporary dance companies have flouted conventional standards with outsized and aged members. Some do add interest and depth; it remains to be seen whether "Do We Dare" goes beyond shock value to something more artistically profound.

Visitors from afar include Ballet Folklorico de Mexico on its 45th anniversary world tour, at the Warner this month; the provocative, hard-edged S.O.A.P. Dance Theatre Frankfurt, at Lisner Auditorium in October; and on its first American tour, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, mainland China's first such troupe, at the Kennedy Center as part of the "America Dancing" series, also next month.

To cap the season, we can look forward to a few welcome variations on the traditional "Nutcracker" ballet. Donald Byrd/The Group will be back with their Duke Ellington-inspired "Harlem Nutcracker" at George Mason University; the Bowie-based National Ballet Company offers an "Ellington Nutcracker" at Bowie State University, and a tap and jazz version, "Nuts and Crackers," by Frederick's Artistic Dance Center, swings into Frederick Community College. Ring out the old, and ring in the new!

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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