The Washington Ballet's season-opening series is titled "Russian Masters," but the emphasis is wrong. The company's dancers are the masters, a stellar achievement considering the stylistic challenges of the program's four works.
Under the leadership team of Artistic Director Julie Kent and Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee for the past year, the dancers are becoming more elegant, focused and agile. It's evident that meaningful attention is being paid to each one. They hear the music in the same way, shape their fingers and hands with intention, and even seem to breathe together.
These improvements and more were thrillingly on view Thursday night. The only piece new to Washington in this series, at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, is "Bolero," Alexei Ratmansky's bracing, agonistic microcosm with enough sass to make the timeworn, insistent Ravel tune agreeable. The other works — "Les Sylphides" by Michel Fokine, the second-act pas de deux from Marius Petipa's 19th-century "Le Corsaire" and Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" — have landed at the center via other troupes innumerable times, and are undoubtedly familiar to most ballet followers. But the clear and expressively rich way the Washington Ballet embodied them made each one fresh.
The Washington Ballet Orchestra, led by Charles Barker, principal conductor of American Ballet Theatre, gave the dancing the fine ground it deserved.
The lushness of "Les Sylphides," in particular, was a model that companies several times the size of this small one would do well to follow. There was a sparkling, consoling quality to the ensemble and the excellent soloists — Venus Villa, Tamako Miyazaki, Ayano Kimura and Rolando Sarabia — mingled calm, simplicity and joy.
If the program's works share anything beyond the nationality of their choreographers, it's that each represents a distinct era of the art form. "Bolero," created in 2001, brings the pace and uneasiness of 21st-century life into ballet. It's also a catalogue of Ratmansky features: the testy relationships; physical lusciousness, as though the dancers were landing their jumps in chocolate ganache, and a surprising but flawless musicality that made you hear the Ravel anew.
Yet "Bolero" is haunted by alienation. Each of the dancers is numbered, 1 through 6, across the chest. As the music builds, so do their movements. The communal energy booms. By the end you feel this group could power all the chandeliers in the Eisenhower Theater for this season and next. Yet if the dancers emotionally connect with one another, it is only briefly. This is one of Ratmansky's showiest pieces, with his young gods swaggering directly before the audience. It doesn't feel celebratory, and that makes it intriguing. No matter how they grind away, the cast cannot shed those numbers and become individuals.
The "Corsaire" excerpt, as danced by the explosive Brooklyn Mack and a cheerfully confident EunWon Lee, takes a straightforward approach to showmanship, as in the athletic brand of technique that the Soviets exported to dazzle the West. Its polar opposite is 1908's "Les Sylphides," which captures the graceful, rhythmic lines of art nouveau, and the art movement's luxury and delight.
"Prodigal Son," which Balanchine made for the Ballets Russes in 1929, is the quintessential one-act drama of that period of experimentation, told in broad brushstrokes but with great imagination and sex appeal. Jonathan Jordan was well-suited to the title role's optimism, and Kateryna Derechyna, as the Siren, delivered both heat and frost.
None of these works could have been performed this well before now. What, then, will the rest of this season bring — spun gold? Let's not expect miracles. But a steady, deeper exploration of the suggestive powers of ballet and the well-tuned body — yes. Given this grand night, and the strengths of last season, these are rewards I feel certain we can bank on.
The Washington Ballet performs "Russian Masters," with rotating casts, through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets: $25-$140. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.