There are many pleasures in Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs," which the Washington Ballet performed Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tharp's satiny ease in distilling ballroom dance into intimate duets, the calluses and textures of Sinatra's voice, the gowns by Oscar de la Renta -- what's not to like? But the moment that made the evening was when Jared Nelson, head down, casually pulling on a sport coat, catches a torpedoing Michele Jimenez at the last second without batting an eye.
Dancing to Sinatra's chin-up pep talk "That's Life," Nelson and Jimenez showed us its application to a flinty relationship, where instead of moonbeams there were sparks, hot and unpredictable. Their tussling was note-perfect. But not every pairing was as successful. In "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," Erin Mahoney-Du swung around and over and on top of Luis Torres as if she were a high-bar acrobat, but the effort was noticeable. Here was another very appealing couple, but the cool finish so necessary to Tharp's effect was missing.
Sona Kharatian and Chip Coleman, both of them underused in other repertory, brought a knowing, velvety quality to the wistful "All the Way," and the peppery Zachary Hackstock had his hands full with a coltish Maki Onuki in "Somethin' Stupid." There was fun enough in other sections, but the ballet fell short of intoxicating.
It's a surprise, given the material. This ballet, wound around such hits as "Strangers in the Night" and "My Way" (which Tharp uses twice, in two different versions, so it's really only eight Sinatra songs) was a triumph for Tharp's company 23 years ago. It made an even bigger splash at American Ballet Theatre when she reduced it into "Sinatra Suite." There it became electrifyingly chic, spotlighting Mikhail Baryshnikov's precision tempered with world-weariness, and Elaine Kudo's wise, above-it-all glamour. Kudo staged the complete work for the Washington Ballet, but the mixed result suggests she hadn't had enough time to get it just right.
Of course, it's possible the problem lay elsewhere, but "Serenade," which opened the program, looked unfinished in a similar way. This was odd, because unlike the Tharp, "Serenade" is a ballet the company has danced before. It is one of this world's most perfect creations: Tchaikovsky's music is the temple, and George Balanchine's choreography a sermon from the lips of God. It's a heavenly world, with its ensemble of women in pale blue gowns, but the dancing was woefully earthbound. Pointing the feet seemed to be of only passing concern, and when the tempo picked up, neatness was forgotten. The emotional tone was all over the place, with some dancers grinning as if it were a debutante ball, others responding to some deeply mournful vibe. In the principal roles, Jimenez, Mahoney-Du and Brianne Bland were capable enough, but in spots one saw more labor than loveliness.
However, the ballet by the company's artistic director was smartly pulled together. No ragged edges there. Now what does that tell you? Septime Webre's "Carmen," premiered in 2001, has a fraction of the choreographic interest of either "Nine Sinatra Songs" or "Serenade," but the performance packed far more punch. The Picasso-style sets and flirtatious costumes that reveal lots of leg helped, but so did the fact that the dancers were more comfortable swinging their legs like garden gates and stomping their feet than they were with the stricter technical standards of either Tharp or Balanchine. Webre created the title role for Jimenez, the company workhorse, and she is terrifically sexy in it, but one does grow tired of one high kick after the other, even from her.
Performances continue through tomorrow.