As for the highlights of dance in Washington in 1985, both visiting and native, here are some nominations:
*Welcome Returns: It was a year for joyfully renewed acquaintances. The New York City Ballet, for example, returned to the Kennedy Center after a season's absence, demonstrating unrivaled excellence and introducing us to Jerome Robbins' "In Memory Of . . .," an elegaic ballet set to the Berg Violin Concerto. In a wrenching performance of the central role, ballerina Suzanne Farrell seemed more seraphically luminous than ever. The company also treated us to a week of Balanchine's enchanting "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Darci Kistler returned to the Washington stage as a bewitching Titania; Ib Andersen's Oberon and Heather Watts and Sean Lavery's Divertissement duet were also outstanding.
Supreme iconoclast Merce Cunningham returned with his company for impressive performances and film showings in downtown Washington after a decade's hiatus, a year that also saw him receive the Kennedy Center Honors, as well as a MacArthur Foundation grant and London's Olivier Award for choreography. Paul Taylor, another MacArthur Foundation fellow, and Erick Hawkins brought their excellent troupes back to Washington, both showing inspired choreography hitherto unseen here.
Another returnee was the powerhouse Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which appeared both at the Kennedy Center in April and at Wolf Trap last summer. At the Kennedy Center, Ailey's searing "For Bird . . . With Love," a tribute to Charlie (Bird) Parker in the form of a dramatic collage, marked a new milestone in Ailey's choreographic evolution. Eschewing cliche's, Ailey has invented a wonderfully original set of body-language equivalents for the rhythmic tug and harmonic colorations of jazz music, and embedded them in a piercingly stylized, if somewhat rambling and overlong, biography of Parker. At Wolf Trap, the company presented the world premiere of the Bill T. Jones-Arnie Zane collaboration, "How to Walk an Elephant," a flawed but intriguingly daring opus about the collision between classical and postmodern dance sensibilities.
*Remarkable Reproductions: Restorations, revisions and restagings were hallmarks of the ballet season hereabouts. American Ballet Theatre, which, like the Ailey troupe, paid us visits both at the Kennedy Center (Dec. '84-Jan. '85) and Wolf Trap (August) wound up its winter season with the first American production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's sumptuously melodramatic "Romeo and Juliet," in which Leslie Browne's tempestuous Juliet and Kevin McKenzie's fervent Romeo were the most memorable principals.
A slightly retouched "Giselle," supervised by John Taras, and a "Bayadere" excerpt that brought us the radiant company debut of former Royal Ballet ballerina Alessandra Ferri, were the high points of the ABT week at Wolf Trap. At the Kennedy Center, Dance Theatre of Harlem gave us its persuasively Americanized Bayou version of "Giselle," with circumspectly traditional choreography by Frederic Franklin. August Bournonville's exotic, merrily moralizing comedy of 1855, "Abdallah," was the special feature of Ballet West's Kennedy Center visit, in a production beautifully researched and mounted by Bruce Marks and the late Toni Lander.
The rollicking "Con Amore" (1953) was one of a number of fine ballets by Lew Christensen on the programs of the San Francisco Ballet, which made its Kennedy Center debut last May. Also featured were works by outgoing artistic director Michael Smuin, ranging from the forcefully polemical "A Song for Dead Warriors" to the flagrantly mishmash rockaganza, "To the Beatles."
For the Washington Ballet, 1985 included the company's official Kennedy Center debut, at a Terrace Theater benefit in March, and a notably successful tour of China in May (later the subject of an hourlong TV special by Channel 9). A number of solid, inventive older works by resident choreographer Choo-San Goh were the backbone of the year's repertory, along with his new "Schubert Symphony," surprising in its straightforward neoclassicism.
*Resounding Renewals: Skating, ballroom dancing and minstrelsy were among the "antique" genres startlingly revitalized in productions seen here this past year. The John Curry Skating Company, in its thrilling three-week run at the Kennedy Center Opera House in August, proved revelatory. The company was in superb shape and put its virtuosity exclusively in the service of newly acquired expressive skills. The biggest disclosure, however, was the size and scope of Curry's choreographic gifts, as manifest in new works that opened up unsuspected horizons of movement art. The drama and subtlety of Curry's ice pieces are couched in a rigorously musical, architectural frame that is extrapolated from the grand classical traditions of dance. At the same time, the uninhibited flow of skating endows those traditions with the potential for a novel kind of lyric beauty for which Curry has a generous creative flair.
Ballroom dancing has been making a sizable comeback in recent years. The American Ballroom Theater, a recently founded troupe of four expertly seasoned couples, takes the fox trot, the waltz, the tango and other social dances and weaves them into a seamless theatrical tapestry, with the help of the amply resourceful choreography of John Roudis, a former professional exhibition dancer. The company made a scintillating Washington debut at the Smithsonian in July and repeated its success at the Terrace Theater as part of the Dance America series in October. The Kennedy Center will be bringing the troupe back for a week next February with a new program.
Black choreographers have been taking a new look at the touchy subject of 19th-century minstrelsy in America, in an attempt to recover the bountiful creative sparks obscured for our era by the racist stereotypes in which this material was originally cloaked. The wonderfully lively, artful results were visible both in Lenwood Sloan's program of 19th-century Afro-American dance at the Smithsonian in January, and on an even more elaborate scale, by the minstrel show and parade Washington's own splendid D.C. Youth Ensemble toured in various sections of the city last summer.
*Movingly Modern: The Dance Place series afforded us an unprecedented span of contemporary dance activity both local and imported, ranging from such Washington-based troupes as those of Carlo Perlo, Cathy Paine, Wendy Woodson, Meriam Rosen, Raquel Pena, Lesa McLaughlin and others, to visiting groups such as Eiko and Koma and the New Dance Ensemble (Minneapolis), as well as companies headed by Beth Soll, Deborah Gladstein, Anna Leo, Diane Frank and Deborah Riley, Margaret Jenkins and Bebe Miller.
Especially memorable, among many interesting new works, was a poignant piece called "Boundary Water" by New York-based Ralph Lemon, seen as part of the New Dance Ensemble program.
The Dance Place was also the site of the debut of Daniel West Dancers in October. West, a gifted Washington choreographer who blends permuted patternings with expressionist themes, has gathered some of the city's finest dancers for his new unit and infused them with his own intensity of spirit. Intensity is also a trademark of Miya Hisaka's D.C. Contemporary Dance Theater, a troupe that fuses modern, jazz and African idioms into a distinctive blend. The company made its Kennedy Center debut at the Terrace Theater in November to a wildly enthusiastic house.
Liz Lerman and Maida Withers, long prominent in Washington dance, both offered mammoth, multimedia premieres this year. Neither Withers' abstract "Laser Dance," in collaboration with musician Bob Boilen and artist Rockne Krebs at the Marvin Theater in June, nor Lerman's epic "Russia," at the Sidwell Friends School the same month, fully realized its aspirations, but both showed aggressive imagination and ingenuity on a large scale.
Other modern dance events of particular significance, at various locations in and around the city, included visiting performances by David Gordon/Pick Up Co., Deborah Hay, Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre, the Charles Moulton Dance Company and Blondell Cummings. Washington choreographers and dancers were showcased in new editions of the Washington Dance Directions festival at the Marvin Theater in June, and of the Smithsonian's Salute to Washington Dance at Baird Auditorium.
*Tantalizing Toeholds: Testifying to the undiminished vitality of jazz tap dance as an art form were performances by the incomparably elegant Charles (Honi) Coles (in "My One and Only" at the Kennedy Center Opera House), Maurice Hines (in "Balletap U.S.A." early in the year and the recent "Uptown . . . It's Hot!," both at the Warner), Brenda Bufalino and Washington's Tap Quartet (at d.c. space), Philadelphia's La Vaughn Robinson with the Tap Quartet (at Baird) and Bonnie Slawson and Stephanie Simmons (in a zany miniature devised by Slawson for a Glen Echo Dance Theatre program this month).
*Excitingly Ethnic: African dance was handsomely represented by the Black Dance '85 festival organized by Melvin Deal and featuring his 25-year-old African Heritage Dancers and Drummers along with troupes from other cities; by the recently established KanKouran West African Dance Company; and by "Odadaa!," a Ghanaian troupe resident in Washington. The Spanish dance troupes of Washingtonians Raquel Pena and Marina Keet also offered premieres this year. Troupes from Guinea, Japan and Yugoslavia also performed on various city stages.
*Between the Cracks: Some events deserving mention were so unorthodox in format as to defy classification. Among these were the "Evenings of Exchange," a series offered free to the public at various sites including the Kennedy Center, under the sponsorshop of the Dance Exchange. Combining performances by both area artists and distinguished visitors, in a variety of media including dance, with discussions led by scholars, artists and critics, these innovative assemblies proved a very stimulating addition to the Washington cultural scene.
Also straddling conventional dividing lines was the uproariously madcap production "Autobahn," a wry indictment of contemporary civilization by a New York-based group called the Adaptors, seen in the new dance series at Baltimore's Theatre Project in May. Unconventional, too, was Antonio Gades' flamenco version of "Carmen," staged to stunning effect at the Warner last January, and Bill Irwin's prodigiously amusing avant-vaudeville show, "The Regard of Flight," currently at Arena's Kreeger.
*On the Big Screen: The movie of unique dance consequence was, of course, "White Nights," Taylor Hackford's mechanically contrived rah-rah yarn about reverse defections, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. The explosive dancing by these two redeems an otherwise ho-hum picture, but there's an additional silver lining. The dance sequences are beautifully shot and edited, minus the nervous and irrational cutting and zooming that so often ruin filmed choreography. Baryshnikov, incidentally, credits this largely to choreographer Twyla Tharp, for serving, as he put it, as the dancers' "attorney," and making sure the filmmakers respected the integrity of the dancing.
*Year's Most Forgettables: The American Ballet Comedy troupe's doggedly uncomic slapstick in their Tawes Theatre performance in July, and Vicente Nebrada's overdressed and undernourished version of "The Firebird," as presented by the Washington Ballet at Lisner Auditorium in October.
*Mourned: 1985 saw the passing of a number of dancer notables, including jazz tap master Leon Collins; ballerina Toni Lander; dancer Harold Lang; master vaudeville hoofer Hal Le Roy; pioneering dance critic John Martin; ballet master and associate director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Karel Shook; dance benefactor Ben Sommers; and Sankai Juku dancer Yoshiyuki Takada.