May 19, 2017 at 11:25 AM
by Sarah L. Kaufman
The creative buzz of brand-new work returns in force for the Washington Ballet's 2017-2018 season, which will feature three world premieres in a single evening, as well as enduring gems and company premieres by such luminaries as Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins and John Cranko.
Additionally, as a measure of the standard of sophistication that Artistic Director Julie Kent has set for the company, all of next season's performances (except the perennial "Nutcracker" run) will feature live music.
In shaping her second year at the helm, Kent says, she felt a responsibility "to create opportunities for other people." To this end, for the company's spring series (March 14-18 at Sidney Harman Hall), she has commissioned a trio of small-scale works from emerging choreographers who are still actively dancing: Marcelo Gomes, one of American Ballet Theatre's most dynamic and experienced principals, who has created three pieces for ABT; Gemma Bond, an ABT corps de ballet member, originally from the Royal Ballet, who will present an evening of her work at New York's Joyce Theater this July; and Clifton Brown, formerly of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and now with Jessica Lang Dance.
The fact that all three are still dancing, Kent says, gives them "a very interesting point of view, looking at our art form through a two-way lens."
Kent has bundled the rest of the season under the theme of "Masterworks," with a continued emphasis on magnificent pieces that broke ground in their day and offer fruitful challenges for the dancers, musicians and audience. The season opens at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater with "Russian Masters" (Oct. 4-8), featuring two standards from the Ballets Russes era: Michel Fokine's plotless yet deeply romantic "Les Sylphides" (1909) and Balanchine's condensed narrative "Prodigal Son" (1929). The virtuosic pas de deux from Marius Petipa's 19th-century "Le Corsaire" and Ratmansky's 2001 take on modern society, "Bolero," round out the program.
Kent says that with such time-tested repertoire, she's building a foundation for her dancers, "so you can open the doors to dance anything on a great level, because it teaches you as it goes along."
(Former artistic director Septime Webre's Washington-themed "Nutcracker" returns to the Warner Theatre from Nov. 24 to Dec. 24.)
The company will return to the Kennedy Center Opera House Feb. 14-18 with Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet," which the South African choreographer created in 1962 for the Stuttgart Ballet. It's well-suited for the Washington Ballet, scaled for a smallish company and highlighting the ensemble as well as the ill-fated lovers.
This Cranko work is a welcome treasure, seldom seen here, created by a masterful storyteller who favored naturalism and simplicity. The important contemporary choreographers Jiri Kylian and John Neumeier thrived under Cranko's stewardship of the Stuttgart Ballet; while they were still performing, he nudged them into dance-making. Cranko's own bright career was cut short at age 45, when he collapsed on a plane scarcely a decade after "Romeo and Juliet" opened to high praise.
After the raft of premieres in March, the Washington Ballet will close its season April 11-15 at the Eisenhower Theater with Balanchine's "Serenade," Frederick Ashton's luminous, precision-driven "Symphonic Variations" and Robbins's "The Concert (Or, the Perils of Everybody)," a comedic study of music obsessives that's by turns laugh-out-loud and poignant.
Next season has the virtue of being more spaced out between fall and spring, unlike this year. Given the change in leadership and the challenges of last-minute programming that arose, all of the new repertoire for the 2016-2017 season has rolled out this spring (with the last series, including Ethan Stiefel's world premiere (May 25-27 at the Opera House; see the associated article). That has made for an especially busy few months, Kent says, on top of her ongoing adaptations to the new job.
Although she says she's happy with how the dancers are responding to the "different artistic menu," Kent says that her adjustment to life outside ABT, where she was a dancer and teacher for 30 years, has not been easy.
"In general it's been a huge challenge," she says, "moving your whole life, your family, leaving a work family that I've known since I was a teenager.
"But I really believe in this pursuit that the Washington Ballet has charged me with, and as I get to know more people and they get to know me, I think it will feel much more like the environment that I'm used to. And it has great rewards, when you see dancers changing before your eyes. And when I hear, as one said recently, 'My dream come true is happening right now.' "
"These are incredible experiences," says Kent, "that so few people get to have."