The weightiness of reverence that falls upon great masters in any of the arts can often obscure the delightfulness and approachability of their art. I thought about this and other complications of mastery as I watched the Washington Ballet program “Contemporary Masters,” works by Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, at Sidney Harman Hall.
This pleasant program, which runs through Sunday, pays homage to three giants of modern dance with works that are well-suited to ballet dancers. This isn’t surprising: Two of the pieces were created for ballet companies. American Ballet Theatre premiered Morris’s “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” in 1988, and Taylor created “Company B” in 1991 for the Houston Ballet and his own company. Cunningham made “Duets” in 1980 for his company, but it has some crisp, linear balletic elements, primarily in the dancers’ uplifted carriage and the stretch of the legs and feet.
There’s buoyancy and wit in each of the works, with a spirit of breezy playfulness in Morris’s; the circusy colors and bold, unexpected corporeal shapes in Cunningham’s; and the swing-era sass of Taylor’s. Yet “Company B,” accompanied by a medley of pop songs from the 1940s recorded by the Andrews Sisters, also is deeply serious, as its cast jitterbugs while men march off to war. Sometimes death strikes in mid-polka, a reminder of the sudden, irrevocable transformation of ordinary people. In juxtaposing optimism with tragedy, “Company B” becomes a character study of America at war, and it extracts some profound truths about that experience.
The qualities of poignancy and piercing sharpness, essential to Taylor’s genius, were not always realized in Thursday’s performance, though Kateryna Derechyna, with her palpable desperation in “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and Sona Kharatian, with haunted eyes in “There Will Never Be Another You,” were especially memorable.
It has been a decade since the company danced Morris’s “Drink to Me,” and it’s good to see it again, with pianist Glenn Sales performing the charming Virgil Thomson études that accompany it. It looks deceptively simple, but the demands for speed, ease and lyricism were unevenly met.
The most successful assay was “Duets.” Its underlying aesthetics are so fine that this work ought to be studied by artists and designers interested in modernism, or craftsmanship of any sort. The unusual color combinations all somehow logically cohere. Torsos bend and twist in ways that defy or exaggerate ordinary human positions, yet the effect is elegantly clean and organic. The curves and lines of the body are often held for a moment, so the eye can appreciate the shapes in space. The choreography tests and displays the dancers’ prolonged extensions and balance.
These tests were faced with a strong sense of care and attention to detail, always gratifying to see. Yet to take up the theme of the program, mastery is another matter. With such a disparate assortment of works, in this series as well as throughout the season, is the Washington Ballet attempting to become a jack of all trades, master of none? Becoming proficient in the different approaches and dance languages of Morris, Taylor and Cunningham is a stiff challenge for a short series of performances. These dancers are working hard to meet the demands of quickly learning a mixed repertoire.
This kind of wide-ranging repertoire can be a precarious choice even for bigger, wealthier companies that have adopted such an approach from their beginnings, such as ABT, which is the former home of Washington Ballet director Julie Kent. Similar questions have long been raised about ABT: What is its defining style? What is its special expertise that no one else has? Why should potential patrons search this company out, among other options?
Of course, ABT, with its prestige and large stable of artists at the very top of the profession, can answer in a different way from the Washington Ballet. But the questions are relevant for any arts organization to ask itself as it develops in a crowded landscape of choices for inspiration and transcendence over the day-to-day.
The Washington Ballet performs “Contemporary Masters” through Sunday at Sidney Harman Hall. washingtonballet.org.