Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter is fond of saying she runs an artist-driven institution. The center’s “Ballet Across America” series, which ended Sunday and was curated by choreographer Justin Peck and ballerina Misty Copeland, put that label into practice. The question is: What was gained by empowering artists to create the audience experience, instead of relying on administrative staff?
Ballet Across America is one of the Kennedy Center’s best ideas, and something it is uniquely suited to bring about. Every two years or so (the series debuted in 2008), it brings together regional troupes from around the country that otherwise would not have the occasion to perform in the nation’s capital to show their best work in shared programs. Past years have revealed an inspiring breadth of artistry across the land. Two memorable examples: the Sarasota Ballet in a sparkling account of Frederick Ashton’s seldom-seen ice-skating delight, “Les Patineurs,” in 2013; and in 2010, the poetry of Ballet Memphis in Trey McIntyre’s “In Dreams,” beautifully accompanied by the ragged emotions of Roy Orbison.
The center’s dance programmers presumably put the series together the way they design the ballet season as a whole, aiming first for excellence, as well as a balance of tone — upbeat as well as contemplative, conventionally balletic as well as fresh and contemporary, and so on. This year, for the first time, the center went outside the box, handing the wheel to Peck and Copeland, who each composed a program that ran for three performances.
Copeland’s stated aim was diversity: For her program, which ran Wednesday through Friday, she picked Nashville Ballet, whose leading dancers include African American ballerina Kayla Rowser; the Black Iris Project, primarily African American dancers with an African American choreographer/director; and Complexions, the contemporary ballet troupe in New York led by the seasoned African American choreographers Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson.
It was Rhoden’s “Star Dust,” a tribute to David Bowie, that closed what had been a rather measured program with an A-bomb. This was simply one of the most exciting performances I’ve seen on the dance series, less a rock ballet than a rock concert, with Complexions’ extraordinary male dancers strutting right to the lip of the stage to lip-sync “Changes,” “Life on Mars” and other songs while the ensemble twisted and pranced behind them, and the whole work gobbling space with huge appetite. Rhoden is not only an inventive and fearless choreographer, he’s also a gifted traffic cop. Deft crowd management was a plus here.
If Copeland’s program seemed to focus mostly on alluring individual dancing, Peck chose works that appealed to his craftsman’s eye. His program Saturday and Sunday featured L.A. Dance Project, the group run by former Paris Opera Ballet director and celebrated choreographer Benjamin Millepied; the Joffrey Ballet, in a piece by Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon; the well-traveled New York modern-dance troupe Abraham.In.Motion, led by Kyle Abraham (also African American, continuing the series’ emphasis on diversity), and an excerpt from Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit,” performed by two Miami City Ballet members.
What was gained by these different approaches? This new turn for a long-running series offered a fine presentation of sporadic gems. Both programs had meaningful strengths: They offered a glimpse of new talent for the center’s ballet audiences and gave an opening to a few luminaries who should return. With the success of Millepied’s quicksilver “Hearts & Arrows,” I’d like to see a full engagement of L.A. Dance Project. He created this work in 2014, accompanied by Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3 (elegantly performed live at the Kennedy Center). “Hearts & Arrows” has a pronounced edge while also being solidly constructed, progressing toward a concluding note of breathtaking poignancy.
The eight excellent dancers wore black ankle booties (hooray for added support for high-impact footwork) and shorts or skirts in a graph-paper pattern. Vertical lighting totems struck an industrial note. Amid the sharp angles, Millepied directed the eye to moments of warmth — a woman bounding away from her partner to throw herself protectively in front of the ensemble, guarding them from some evil; a man rising from a tight circle of dancers, as though he’s been birthed by their collective spirit. At the end, as the dancers lined up in progressive states of unfolding, it felt as though we were watching the evolution of something noble, vulnerable and interconnected in the human species.
Throughout Ballet Across America, the greatest moments were the simplest. It was lovely to encounter Rowser in Nashville Ballet’s “Concerto,” created by Paul Vasterling, the artistic director. Rowser was the standout in this busy work with her calm, ease of movement and understated charm. In a similar vein, the Washington Ballet’s Andile Ndlovu was introduced to a broader audience in Jeremy McQueen’s “Madiba,” for McQueen’s Black Iris Project. This piece sketched moments from Nelson Mandela’s life, and while correlating a dance with a great historical figure and an exceptional historical moment born of decades of struggle is difficult, Ndlovu’s sensitive portrayal of Mandela, with whom he has an intimate connection (Ndlovu hails from Johannesburg), was a reward.
Interestingly, South Africa’s racial conflicts also figured in Abraham’s “The Gettin’, ” with a terrific live jazz band playing Robert Glasper’s interpretation of “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.” Here, too, the political overtone, highlighted in photographic projections of violence, proved a heavy burden for a dance to carry.
It’s easy to see why Wheeldon’s intricate partnering and the shapes he created in “Fool’s Paradise” appeal to Peck as a choreographer. The Joffrey dancers looked splendid, like molten gold, in the 2007 work.
Both programs opened with a new brief film by former dancer Ezra Hurwitz titled “Now More Than Ever,” in which American Ballet Theatre principals whirled through various Kennedy Center sites. Now more than ever, we need the Kennedy Center, I guess we are to think: Commissioned by the center, the film seems destined to play on the video screens in its hallways. It’s a pretty piece of work, though a bit out of place in a tribute to live art and to curators found outside the center’s walls.