A sense of rebirth spreads through the Washington Ballet’s final series of the season. There’s an unmistakable optimism in the works, with the lemony springtime of Frederick Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations” — a neoclassical masterpiece too rarely seen — and in the accessible, youthful grandeur of Balanchine’s “Serenade” and the deeply compassionate comedy of Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert (Or, the Perils of Everybody).”
With this program, titled “Mixed Masters,” which officially opened Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, the dancers, too, look revitalized and renewed. They combine confidence with a light touch, so difficult to do and so appealing. This newfound lightness is apparent in big ways and small ones: in the dancers’ floating ease in jumps, in their swift, skimming steps, just off the floor, and in the women’s carefully shaped feet, a detail that lengthens the body and adds an elegant finish.
Optimism, lightness, beautiful feet: These also are attributes that Washington Ballet Artistic Director Julie Kent possessed in her career with American Ballet Theatre. This program reflects her aesthetic. But on a deeper level, it reveals how sensibly she has developed the company in her two years at the helm.
Let’s start with the music. Without Kent’s commitment to a live orchestra, this program could not have happened. Charles Barker, principal conductor of ABT, led the small but able Washington Ballet Orchestra in all three works, each of which is animated by its music in a particularly intimate way. Both “Symphonic Variations” and “The Concert” featured the treasured Washington pianist Glenn Sales. He deserved his own bouquet for his comic turn in “The Concert,” strutting onstage with an intentionally over-the-top diva presence to outshine any of the ballerinas, and he unspooled the Chopin études and waltzes with relish.
Sales’s warmth and virtuosity especially shone in “Symphonic Variations.” The music is Cesar Franck’s intricately braided “Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra,” in which the piano gently answers the strings with a light, rippling fluidity, creating a mood of quiet wonder and absorption, soft as mist.
Setting Ashton’s ballet alongside Balanchine’s “Serenade” is an inspired choice — you can see the spaciousness, simplicity and a shimmering sense of stasis in both works. “Symphonic Variations” was as much of a landmark for English ballet as “Serenade” — the first ballet Balanchine made in this country — was for American ballet. Ashton created “Symphonic Variations” in 1946, when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, later renamed the Royal Ballet, gained the grand stage of London’s Royal Opera House as its home theater. The war was over, the men — including Ashton — were home, and the ballet company’s endless wartime touring was being richly rewarded. It’s not for nothing that this ballet is bathed in sunshine. It feels like May: clear, balmy, full of promise.
Also, it’s full of space. No clutter gets in the way — this ballet was made for an opera house, and Ashton intended the vastness to be felt. Everything is distilled, yet everything that matters is there. Instead of a pastoral scene of English hills and trees, there’s an abstract backdrop, the work of artist Sophie Fedorovitch: looping black lines on a field of yellow and green. (It is said that she and Ashton were inspired by a bike ride they took through rolling countryside, a story I love, true or not.) Six dancers — three men, three women — in white, vaguely Grecian tunics, fill the openness with buoyant steps, generally small scale but quick and weightless. There is an overall sense of orderly, restrained delight.
This brings me to the dancers. Such an airy style is devilishly difficult; the dancers never leave the stage though the ballet requires great stamina. This is where Kent’s careful planning comes through, having given her dancers difficult artistic and physical challenges in her past series (last year, for instance, with the swift pace of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” and Ashton’s “The Dream”). The entire cast was excellent, with EunWon Lee and Brooklyn Mack as the radiant stars — Lee with her effortless precision and demure glamour, Mack so composed and sure-footed.
“Symphonic Variations” will surely gain more polish over the run. The ease and radiance that characterized it on opening night has spread throughout the company. This was clear in “Serenade” and the charm of leading dancers Maki Onuki, Esmiana Jani and particularly Francesca Dugarte, with her expansive presence and sustained, natural air of delight.
“The Concert” unveiled another ballerina on the rise: Brittany Stone, tall and extravagantly leggy, with a flair for deadpan humor in the central role of an obsessed hat collector and music lover. The brilliance of Robbins is that although he pokes fun at dancers’ flaming passion for their art, he’s never cruel, for he’s one of them. We all are, really, at least you feel that way in watching his tender toast to artists and art lovers. The emphasis is on love. That’s the top note of this program, why it feels like a renewal on many fronts.
The Washington Ballet performs “Mixed Masters” at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Sunday. Tickets: $25-$140. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.