It’s no small thing to reorganize the modest Washington Ballet as a company built to serve great works of art. If ambition is a species of madness, to quote Spinoza, then the troupe’s artistic director, Julie Kent, is indeed quite struck with folly, in a deeply interesting way.
Kent’s ambition for the company springs from confidence and creative thinking, and she is decisively moving ahead in her plan to compete with the best one day. That day is still distant, but the current program at the Warner Theatre, “Balanchine, Ratmansky, Tharp,” shows progress underway. On view are familiar repertory works — Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” and Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs” — and a strong first essay of Alexei Ratmansky’s beautifully complex “Seven Sonatas.”
Be aware, however, that the Warner Theatre’s sound system is where recorded music goes to die. Both “Allegro Brillante,” the most successful work on the program, and “Nine Sinatra Songs” suffered from this. (Happily, “Seven Sonatas” featured live music, which came across splendidly.) In “Allegro,” Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was muddied, yet still this ballet shone. The ensemble dancing was clean and assured, and most of all, EunWon Lee sparkled in the leading role, sensitively assisted by Brooklyn Mack.
Lee dances with the whole of her body in seamless harmony; she evokes a world of ease and energy in exquisite balance. There’s something about her that’s reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn — tall, quicksilver, in command. She seemed to take the music in her arms and fling it joyfully aside, and, as the ballet’s glamorous center pole, she brought out the clarity and pizazz of the whole work.
Lee hails from the Korean National Ballet and has had to master an entirely new, Western repertoire this season. This was her first performance of a Balanchine work. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, especially given the ease and focus with which she inhabited it.
Ease was not always evident in “Seven Sonatas,” a work Ratmansky created for American Ballet Theatre in 2009 with Kent and Xiomara Reyes (now head of the Washington School of Ballet) in the original cast. With these connections, it is reasonable that the Washington Ballet should perform it, but also wildly ambitious, given the work’s intricacies.
This is a sophisticated first effort. Pianist Ryo Yanagitani lent a velvet touch to the Scarlatti “Keyboard Sonatas,” which he played onstage. I’d like to see the company dive into the ballet again in a less compressed space, and with the dancers more comfortable with Ratmansky’s play of contrasts and dynamics, the swift feet and flowing arms, the sustained, twisting poses, quick changes of weight, and the sense of movement traveling on air like a mood, sometimes quieting to a rest but never fully stopping. One saw fleeting but encouraging moments of this.
The Tharp was more comfortable territory, but not all proceeded smoothly amid its wit and high spirits on Thursday evening. The company has been unveiling a new series of performances every month since February. Reorganizing takes time, and this season has unfolded at a clip.
The Washington Ballet performs “Balanchine, Ratmansky, Tharp” through Sunday evening, with rotating casts, at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. Tickets: $22-$115. Call 202-783-4000 or visit washingtonballet.org.