Two years ago, Julie Kent stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House for an ovation as a warmly appreciative audience bid farewell to the retiring American Ballet Theatre star. It was a bittersweet appearance in several ways, as injury had prevented Kent from dancing during her final tour with ABT to her home town.
On Thursday night, Kent returned, beaming, to the Opera House stage in a new role, with a microphone in hand, as she introduced the Washington Ballet’s final program of its first year under her leadership. Life often seems to run in circles, and this evening was full of them.
Kent’s directing has circled back to her dancing, which has been a boon to the Washington Ballet. Her inaugural season has been studded with works she once embodied, and that trend continues in the program that opened Thursday and runs through Saturday night. Kent spoke to the audience with just pride about the return of the Washington Ballet Orchestra, with guest conductor Martin West, and about the evening’s company premieres, “two ballets that are very close to my heart”: Antony Tudor’s “Jardin aux Lilas” (“Lilac Garden”) and Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream.” She’d been a definitive interpreter in both while at ABT, and that familiarity surely contributed to the fine form and feeling in each.
They’re both highly stylized ballets, and nearly opposites — “Jardin” is constrained, conveyed through arrested motion and gestures, while “The Dream” spills out in full-bodied joy, lyricism and wit. Learning both at once is a steep challenge. Yet opening night had its pleasures.
It takes place in moonlight, but “The Dream” felt like just the burst of warmth and gaiety that this wet May has recently denied us. Anthony Dowell, the former Royal Ballet star for whom Ashton created his bright, brief take on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” staged it (along with Susan Jones). With a lush wooded set and fetching costumes, it’s an impressive showpiece of the company — its animation and utterly right, go-for-it hamminess. Andile Ndlovu’s Puck seemed a human impossibility: airborne, quicksilver, equal parts sprite and unruly 6-year-old. As the rustic who’s transformed into an ass, Daniel Roberge spun the role of Bottom into charismatic gold, with his crisp little steps en pointe wearing a donkey head with panache.
In Titania, the fairy queen, Maki Onuki found a role that beautifully suits her natural rhythm — spontaneous, unselfconscious, mischievous — while it also draws out her warmheartedness and an appealing touch of vulnerability. The Mendelssohn score, incidental music he composed for the play, was performed with a delightful, singing sweetness.
“Jardin,” staged by former ABT dancers Amanda McKerrow (also a Washington Ballet alumna) and John Gardner, is also nocturnal, but quieter. The music is Ernest Chausson’s “Poeme,” with Oleg Rylatko’s superb violin solo adding aching poignancy to the story of secretive farewells on the eve of a dreaded marriage. To project the drama, the dancers need more time in its world of interrupted intimacies, but EunWon Lee brought a deeply moving sincerity to the central role of Caroline.
The evening opened with the world premiere of “Frontier,” by former ABT principal Ethan Stiefel. At Kent’s suggestion, Stiefel tied his first big commission (and hers) to the John F. Kennedy centennial. The theme is space exploration, and at a cost of $155,000, it has high-tech costumes, interstellar projections and an atmospheric score by Adam Crystal. But the dancing fell short. Ideas about weightlessness and restlessness didn’t fully ripen, and distracting questions arose (why did Sarah Steele, the astronaut, take off her helmet on a far-flung planet?). Still, Stiefel shows an eye for craft, and I’d like to see what he creates from his own desire.
The Washington Ballet repeats this performance at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday. washingtonballet.org.