The sleek propulsion of Balanchine. The airy lift of Bournonville. The cut-crystal precision of Petipa, and the vivid colloquial punch of Robbins. These enormously varied styles of dancing would make for a rich mixture over the span of any ballet season. Washington audiences will see them all, and more besides, packed into a fortnight during the Kennedy Center's upcoming International Ballet Festival.
Six companies, eight choreographers, two programs. It's a daunting project, in the mold of the center's multi-company Balanchine Celebration of two years ago. For this event, at the Eisenhower Theater March 4-16, dancegoers will get a side-by-side sampling of some of the most influential choreography in ballet history, as well as a couple of seldom-seen nuggets with a high curiosity factor. American Ballet Theatre, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet will share the first program, running March 4-9. The second installment, March 11-16, will feature the Kirov Ballet, Miami City Ballet and dancers from the English National Ballet (joined by Adam Cooper and Sarah Wildor, formerly of the Royal Ballet).
Will it be wholly successful? Will the wide range of works hang together in an artistically satisfying manner? This much is certain: The festival is one of the most imaginative ballet undertakings in recent years at the Kennedy Center, and it underscores the center's newfound role as one of the nation's top ballet presenters. At the very least, the endeavor will proffer a certain measure of ballet's vastness of expression. Putting on display not only the stylistic differences among the troupes but also works that speak to each company's identity, it is something of a primer on ballet history.
The Royal Danish Ballet, for example, will dance excerpts from August Bournonville's "Napoli," the best-known creation of the celebrated 19th-century Dane whose lyrical style became the company's signature. Contrast its lightheartedness with, say, the ethereal, serenely orchestrated mass of ballerinas in the "Kingdom of the Shades" act of Marius Petipa's "La Bayadere," that epitome of the Russian classical tradition that will be the Kirov's contribution. Same general time period, two different companies, worlds apart in manner, form and approach.
This kind of group effort doesn't easily happen in the arts world. Getting a half-dozen artistic directors to agree on programming could hardly have been a graceful undertaking. Imagine untangling the schedules planned years in advance. The stroking of egos. The jockeying for advantage. (Who will be the focal point? Who gets the finale? Who absolutely won't share a program with whom?)
And yet, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser avers, getting everyone to commit was a snap.
"We just asked," he said recently, breaking into a broad, satisfied grin. "We called them up. It was shockingly quick."
That wonderfully thick Kaiser Rolodex does it again.
That, and the unflinching ambition of its owner, who since arriving at the center's helm two years ago has set the Kennedy Center's goals ever higher. Fund both the Kirov and the Bolshoi for extended annual engagements? No problem. Allow Suzanne Farrell to keep polishing her interesting little jewel of a pickup company at the center, and let her do whatever she pleases with it? Absolutely. Get the New York City Ballet to finally work out a deal with its orchestra so that, after a 16-year hiatus, it can once again perform here? Kaiser promises to disclose dates soon.
And now, with the Opera House temporarily closed, throw a bunch of ballet companies together in the smaller, odd-shaped Eisenhower Theater and make it the centerpiece of the season? Why not?
The idea came about, Kaiser said, precisely because of the Opera House renovation (it will be closed all year) and the trouble that would cause for the ballet series.
About a year and a half ago he began to get nervous about the closure. "It made me uncomfortable," he said in his roomy, wide-windowed office overlooking the Potomac. "So I thought, what can we do that's really special, that adds pizazz to this period of time? What if we did something that involved more than one company?"
Kaiser was in a good position to quickly piece together a showcase of ballet. He is a past executive director of American Ballet Theatre and the former head of the Royal Opera House in London (home of the Royal Ballet) and, through that connection, worked often with Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Kirov. Though the festival sounds like an extravagant venture, Kennedy Center officials say costs have been kept in line with more routine ballet engagements, since each troupe is sending only a portion of its dancers and other personnel here -- the Bolshoi, for example, will send two dozen people, rather than the 200 that make up the full company.
But as Kaiser acknowledges, the festival's concept is somewhat artificial, coming at a time when the dwindling of differences in technique and presentation among ballet companies is of concern to many ballet followers. In an age in which the larger companies have become an amalgam of nationalities and one troupe's repertoire looks much like another's, the idea of a ballet company bearing a discernible stylistic stamp is fast fading.
"National style has become more of a romantic notion than it was 30 or 40 years ago," Kaiser said. "Ballet has become more athletic. The idea of the blushing British ballerina doesn't really exist anymore."
The homogenization of ballet worldwide is the inevitable result of the opening of borders, the migration of dancers and repertoire, and the contagious late-20th-century emphasis on competitiveness -- higher leaps, faster turns, longer balances -- over artistry. No longer are the Russian classics purely the province of the Russians. No longer is the syncopated musicality of George Balanchine a shock to the world outside New York. No longer do the leading companies draw their dancers exclusively from their own feeder schools, nor are they necessarily headed by their own countrymen. (Matz Skoog, artistic director of the English National Ballet, is Swedish. Until recently, the Royal Ballet was briefly led by an Australian.)
This is why the festival's offerings are rooted in the past, when stylistic distinctions were in formation. Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free" (1944) and Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" (1946) were created close in time, yet with wildly different vocabularies that became indelibly associated with the companies for which they were made. "Fancy Free" was Robbins's first ballet, created for ABT and set to a bounding, jazz-influenced score by the young Leonard Bernstein. Its sailors on shore leave and the women they court dance with what ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie calls "a vernacular that could only be American."
"It's rooted in ballet, but people are shruggin' shoulders and chewin' gum and using the movement that a guy on the street would use," he said. "Robbins had an incredible ability to capture the camaraderie and spontaneity and competitiveness of three guys on the town, and it's all in the choreography."
McKenzie, who in his performing years with ABT often danced one of the sailor roles, said the steps felt so natural that the challenge was to resist the urge to improvise, which was sure to arouse Robbins's legendary ire.
"You'd have so much fun that you wanted to improve on it," he recalled. "You'd think, oh, it'd be really funny if I do this! But he'd flip out. It's choreographed down to the tooth, and it's all in the timing."
The "Americanness" of this ballet notwithstanding, it is not necessarily typical of ABT's repertoire today, which includes the entire spectrum of story ballets as well as contemporary works by Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and others -- even Martha Graham, the captain of the anti-ballet movement. In fact, nailing down the company's identity was the subject of a recent retreat taken by McKenzie and his artistic staff.
"We can do so many styles without being shackled," McKenzie said. "Many might condescendingly say, 'Oh, you mean you're eclectic.' But I would politely disagree and say, 'No, I mean all-encompassing.' About some companies you could say they're precise, or expansive, or electric, but you can say all of those things about us."
On a somewhat smaller scale, Miami City Ballet is also expanding its artistic reach. When the former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella founded the company 17 years ago, he taught his dancers what he knew best -- the neoclassical work of Balanchine, the Russian-born NYCB founder who, right up until his death in 1982, showed the world a whole new way to dance ballet.
"What else did I know?" Villella asked. "Just from a practical point of view, I wasn't going to start out with 'Swan Lake' or 'Giselle.' " A decade later, after establishing his group as one of the top Balanchine satellites in the nation, he began to open up the repertoire. To the festival, his company will bring Balanchine's "Four Temperaments" -- a work whose still-startling clarity and plotless, music-driven intensity became as emblematic of American dance as did Robbins's regular-guy theater. But from time to time, Miami City Ballet also performs "Giselle," as well as works by Petipa, Bournonville and British choreographer Frederick Ashton.
"Balanchine is our critical core," Villella said, "but that's not what the whole world is about. It should be incumbent upon us to investigate all these other areas." Doing so, he says, gives a dancer a better sense of himself and his abilities, and adds to his arsenal of expression.
"If you don't know the past," he continued, "how can you make a contemporary statement?"
Experiencing the past -- in concentrated form -- is a good chunk of what this ballet festival is all about. Most selections date from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. The exception is Kenneth MacMillan's "Sea of Troubles," which the prolific British choreographer created in 1988. A one-act expressionistic take on Shakespeare's "Hamlet," it is hardly representative of MacMillan, who is known mostly for lushly romantic full-length ballets such as "Romeo and Juliet" (which, coincidentally, ABT will perform here next month).
"Sea of Troubles," a dark, rarely performed work, was a late addition to the festival. Originally the Royal Ballet was to have danced Ashton's "Monotones." But several factors contributed to the substitution, Kaiser said: There was a change in the Royal Ballet's leadership, though that was not nearly as important as MacMillan's widow -- one of Kaiser's inner circle of well-placed friends -- reminding him that last fall marked the 10th anniversary of her husband's death. "Sea of Troubles" was part of a tribute put together under the auspices of the MacMillan estate last summer by former Royal Ballet principals Adam Cooper and Sarah Wildor with dancers from the English National Ballet.
Thus, the atypical MacMillan ballet will form the core of the festival's second program, bracketed by the more obvious choices of "The Four Temperaments" and the Kirov's "Bayadere" excerpt. (The Kirov, Kaiser said, was especially eager to do this piece since the Bolshoi -- its chief rival -- had performed it here last spring.)
The program of the festival's first week will likewise have an unusual midpoint sandwiched between two classics. It opens with "Fancy Free" and closes with the "Napoli" tarantella. In between, the Bolshoi will perform a raft of short, unrelated pieces: Michel Fokine's "Spectre de la Rose," a duet from Petipa's "Don Quixote" as well as one from Alexander Gorsky's "La Fille Mal Gardee," and "Narcissus" by Kasyan Goleizovsky, an experimental choreographer little known in the West whom Balanchine credited with inspiring his own early forays.
Just what will the festival's offerings reveal about the dancers who dance them? Elements of distinction to look for include the high, light jump and intricate footwork of the Danes; the expansive upper bodies and forcefulness of the Russians; the overt emotional tone in the MacMillan work; ABT's high energy and broad dramatics; and Miami's quicksilver timing.
If you ask Villella, a company's style all comes down to the quality of that most basic of ballet steps: the plie, or bending outward of the knees.
"The British, when they do a plie, they really do a plie," he said. "The Balanchine plie is the propulsion for the next step. But the Russians, and the English following the Russians, fell in love with the landing and therefore fell in love with the plie."
Villella said what he would find most instructive about the gathering of troupes here would be sitting in on the pre-performance ballet classes given by his program partners, to augment his own understanding of each company's style. The backstage mingling of dancers who wouldn't normally get a chance to meet and observe one another will likely be as educational for the performers as their dancing will be for the public.
But making an impression on the audience -- whether by enriching its understanding of ballet or simply by knocking its socks off with variety and virtuosity -- is what is most important for Michael Kaiser.
"I wanted a 'wow' factor," Kaiser said. "I'm trying to build a ballet program here. It had shrunk and I'm trying to build it back -- and build it back with quality."