It was clear that change was afoot at the Washington Ballet even before the curtain opened on its fall series Friday at the Kennedy Center. An eye-catching photo spread of the dancers greeted audience members at the doors to the Eisenhower Theater: lively, sexy shots of flailing hair, high heels, lots of lean leg. Guest principal artists Amanda McKerrow and husband John Gardner (both on loan from American Ballet Theatre) were snapped in a snug embrace, his hand on her backside. New Artistic Director Septime Webre was caught in midair; no stiff and reserved authority figure he.
Webre continued this message of informal openness with an onstage appearance. Bounding out of the wings with microphone in hand, he warmly saluted company founder Mary Day and outgoing General Director Elvi Moore. Then, like a practiced waiter presenting the dinner specials, he talked up the works on the program ("We'll be opening with 'Agon' tonight . . ."). It was boundary-breaking thinking, he noted, that linked such disparate choreographers on the program as ballet masters George Balanchine and Antony Tudor, contemporary Spaniard Nacho Duato--and Webre himself.
This was the fresh, hip "Septime Webre Show"--and why not? The company had since its inception in 1976 been under Day's stewardship. Her successor--formerly of New Jersey's American Repertory Ballet--is another animal entirely, and if nothing else this weekend's performances established Webre's vision of the Washington Ballet as youthful, eager to please and brashly open to risk.
Consider the boldness of capping your first program as director with a world premiere of your own. Webre's "Juanita y Alicia" drew on his mother's childhood in Cuba during the 1920s and '30s. Holly Highfill's painting of a family portrait framed the action as a series of nostalgic snapshots. The dancers were dressed as fresh-faced schoolchildren in crisp, white pleated skirts and shorts.
Sin Miedo, a local Latino band, provided infectious onstage accompaniment, which the dancers matched with explosive energy. An electrified, dangerous edge colored the movements. One dancer was tossed alarmingly high by her cavaliers, while another turned a soaring, heart-stopping back flip. Yet this frenetic postmodern tone, while an undeniable attention-grabber, didn't jibe conceptually; it was vintage Caribbean folklife filtered through an MTV lens. Still, one could savor McKerrow's subtle, whisper-soft performance: As an elusive figure of memory, or loss, she was the work's emotional center.
How grand it will be to have McKerrow in the company for the season--she is an extraordinary ballerina, with an unearthly ease emanating from transparent strength. In one long unending breath, she and Gardner danced the central duet from Tudor's "The Leaves Are Fading," a last-minute replacement for the previously announced "Nuages" by Jiri Kylian. (Complications reportedly arose in the choreographer's plan to coach the work.)
Duato's "Na Floresta," a work of heaving anguish and rapture, went down easily, highlighted by Heather Perry's quicksilver solo.
With "Agon," Webre set a lofty goal for the dancers. One applauds his taste while questioning the choice, as this highly demanding work is, for the moment, beyond the company's reach. A 1957 collaboration between Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, it is a deceptively simple ballet. The dancers wear unadorned leotards and move in crisp geometrical formations to the complex yet sublimely uncluttered score. But as stripped-down and structurally open as the choreography is, it exposes every wobble or tonal incongruity among the dancers. Jeanene Jarvie, in the "Bransle Gay" section, seemed most comfortable.
A company needn't try to tackle everything, and certainly not all in one night. This program had a lot packed into it--the varying textures of intricate neoclassicism, aerobic energy and smoldering romance, and the enthusiasm of a new leader eager to make a mark. While not all notes were hit, what one takes away is an undeniable sense of ebullience, optimism and potential.