Man-eating women, primordial rituals, chalk-dusted bodies and an army of rubber blow-up dolls: The last dance season of the century has a discernible edge to it, with attention-getting new voices amid the customary mix of classics and contemporary works.
Among the chief ballet events of interest will be the debut of the Washington Ballet under the artistic direction of Septime Webre, who took over from founder Mary Day last spring. Webre, described in the subscription brochure as adding "kick and dazzle" to the season, is young and energetic, and his markedly eclectic tastes are evident in "Pushing the Boundaries," as the company's upcoming performance series has been dubbed. He has chosen a program that will test the dancers not just technically but artistically as well: George Balanchine's "Agon," a highly complex, exquisitely precise and disciplined masterpiece; Jiri Kylian's "Nuages," a romantic duet; Nacho Duato's "Na Floresta," a contemporary work with a racing pulse; and the world premiere of Webre's "Juanita y Alicia," inspired by his maternal roots in Cuba.
Adding to the high expectations for this series are appearances by American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Amanda McKerrow, a former member of the Washington Ballet, and her husband, ABT soloist John Gardner. They join the Washington Ballet as principal guest artists for the 1999-2000 season--a lavish coup for local audiences, as McKerrow's crystalline classicism and the couple's shared dramatic gifts are unparalleled.
On the heels of the Washington Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet arrives as the first installment of the Kennedy Center's ballet subscription series. The company, one of the nation's finest, brings a multifaceted program of works by superb craftsman Jerome Robbins (the violent female-dominated insect world of "The Cage"; "A Suite of Dances," originally created for Mikhail Baryshnikov; "In the Night"; and "Glass Pieces") and the East Coast premiere of Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's version of the 19th-century ballet "Giselle." The Robbins program reflects Tomasson's personal closeness to the late choreographer; it was Robbins who encouraged the young Icelandic dancer to move to the United States to dance decades ago. When the two met up again at the New York City Ballet, Robbins featured Tomasson in his works, and later made the fairly uncharacteristic move of allowing Tomasson's company to perform his ballets.
Clumped together in October are the season's two other ballet attractions: Suzanne Farrell kicking off a tour of her new ensemble at the Kennedy Center, and the Australian Ballet landing at George Mason University. Farrell's program is of particular note, despite the curiousness of its title, "Suzanne Farrell Stages the Masters of 20th Century Ballet." There will be a half-dozen Balanchine pieces--masterworks indeed, "Apollo" and an excerpt from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" among them--along with a single example each from Robbins and Maurice Bejart, the latter of whom cannot justifiably be considered on the same artistic level. But it was to Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels that Farrell turned when she left Balanchine's New York City Ballet for a five-year interlude in the 1970s, and it is therefore understandable that she holds a certain affection for his work.
Farrell was Balanchine's last and most enduring muse, a dancer of intense musicality, refinement and unbounded speed who has become a gifted ballet master in her own right. Working through the Balanchine Trust, she is one of the most sought-after coaches and teachers of Balanchine works. At a time when grumblings are heard about the current state of Balanchine's ballets at the New York City Ballet, many eyes will be on Farrell's 16 dancers, selected from around the country.
At George Mason, home to consistently interesting dance programming, the Australian Ballet will offer three contemporary works. After successful local visits in previous years with full-length classics, the company returns with William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," Stephen Baynes's "At the Edge of Night" and Stephen Page's "Rites." Page, considered Australia's leading aboriginal choreographer, is the artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, which fuses Aboriginal and urban dance styles. His work joins both Bangarra and the ballet company in a new take on Igor Stravinsky's merciless, primitive "Rite of Spring."
On the modern dance front, three noteworthy artists return to the area. The first is Martha Clarke, the iconoclastic founding member of Pilobolus Dance Theatre who for years has been at the forefront of the dance-theater movement with her own troupe. Dancegoers may remember an excoriatingly emotional work of hers on a program of solos a year ago at the Terrace Theater, in which the dancer wore only a long white skirt and a bag over her head. As the first event in this season's "America Dancing" series, Clarke represents what the Kennedy Center dubs modern dance's "Russian Legacy." Her "Vers la Flamme," onstage next month, is based on short stories by Anton Chekhov.
In November the white-powdered, shaven-headed dancers of Japanese butoh group Sankai Juku, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, take the stage at Lisner Auditorium. Internationally considered a premier exemplar of this highly stylized, theatrical and often spellbinding movement style, the group of five dancers is making its first local appearance in a decade.
Susan Marshall makes a millennial statement as the year comes to a close with "The Descent Beckons" at George Mason University. Marshall, whose fluid touch was sublimely apparent two years ago in "Les Enfants Terribles," a collaboration with Philip Glass, merges her company of six dancers with 75 life-size inflatable dolls in an exploration of New Year's Eve rituals.
And while there will be plenty of "Nutcrackers" to choose from, one welcome sugar-free addition to the season's holiday dance offerings will be tapper extraordinaire Maurice Hines, set to rock the boat in "Guys and Dolls" at Arena Stage.