The Washington Ballet in Balanchine’s “Serenade.” (XMB Photography)
Dance critic

The Washington Ballet dubbed its season-opening series “TWB Welcomes,” a nod to the four guest artists from American Ballet Theatre, the Houston Ballet and elsewhere who are joining the company in two programs of excerpts and short works.

The idea of welcoming is sweet. But as an artistic purpose, or a statement of intent or identity, it isn’t terribly interesting. It is vague. I left the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Thursday wishing this troupe would think bolder, be more imaginative. What I saw instead was suspended motion.

It feels as if the company isn’t sure what it is, or how to distinguish itself from the other groups that make regular stops here.

The opening-night program, titled “Exquisite and Exotic,” rested on the familiar. (It rotates with a second, slightly different program.) There was “Serenade,” which Washington audiences saw less than a year ago on a Suzanne Farrell Ballet program. Add to that the gala staple “Black Swan” pas de deux from “Swan Lake” and pieces reprised from the company’s recent seasons. The guest stars were handsome additions, including former ABT star Marcelo Gomes, making his debut in “Serenade,” and ABT principal Stella Abrera, in a duet from Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” Yet there was only so much fascination they could add to an evening of overwhelming predictability.

There was, however, one grand moment of transcendence: Alexandros Pappajohn, an apprentice, making his debut in “Tarantella.” (Why, after two years, and steadily dancing roles of increasing difficulty and prominence, is he not a full company member?) He made the sailing jumps and quicksilver tricks of coordination and panache look easy. He brought forth shades of the intensely athletic Edward Villella, for whom Balanchine created this ballet, with its scurrying score by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Pappajohn was both a source of kinetic thrill and an appealing, authentic individual, spilling courage and pheromones as he raced, mostly airborne, after ballerina Katherine Barkman. 

Barkman, of Ballet Manila, is one of the four guest artists. (The other is Connor Walsh of the Houston Ballet). Barkman will officially join the Washington Ballet as a company member for its next series. In her delightful pairing with Pappajohn, there was no oversell — simply clean steps, exhilarating energy and a vision of joy.

This foretells good things. Yet in the audience sat Brooklyn Mack, one of the Washington Ballet’s most popular and accomplished dancers, or rather, ex-dancers. His departure, made official in mid-August, came as a surprise to many, even to him, he told me in a brief chat in the lobby. A company spokesman said that despite long negotiations, they were unable to reach an agreement with him. Mack has appeared as a guest with the Hong Kong Ballet, led by former Washington Ballet director Septime Webre, and is scheduled to perform with “Fall for Dance” in New York in October.

Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent is a thoughtful and humane director, qualities that are apparent in interviews, in how I’ve seen her work with her dancers and in her warm remarks to the audience before each performance. On Thursday, for example, she announced that she had dedicated the series to the memory of Arthur Mitchell, the pioneering founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem who died Sept. 19. Kent has approached her first two years at the Washington Ballet’s helm with care and skill. She’s not a director who changes everything; she has worked in small steps, yet the dancers have noticeably improved. She brought back the Washington Ballet Orchestra, which performs for this series, a sophisticated move that cannot have come cheap.

Yet losing Mack, an electrifying performer, is not a good sign. Bringing in guest stars declares that there are holes needing to be filled. It does little to proclaim that there are triumphs to come.

The Washington Ballet performs through Sept. 30 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Program B, “Ethereal and Evocative,” features “Les Sylphides” and “Sombrerisimo” along with various pas de deux. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.