Whether arising from the natural world (fires, hurricanes) or the human heart (shootings and other tragedies), cruelty has been one of the dominant characteristics 2018. But not in all quarters. I found optimism and empathy in the theater, where the year’s best dance performances were characterized by great sensitivity. These events told the stories of people who are otherwise overlooked, or they uncovered depths in stories I thought I knew. They connected us with other cultures or with unexpected artists. Their warming effect endures.
New York City Ballet’s Jerome Robbins program
To mark the 100th birthday of the late Broadway titan and master choreographer, New York City Ballet performed a trio of Robbins works at the Kennedy Center that highlighted Jerome Robbins’s wit and lightheartedness, and his fondness for ordinary folks. “Fancy Free,” with its sailors cavorting over beers; “Glass Pieces,” with its corps of dancers bustling about like wonderfully plain, normal-looking people, and “The Four Seasons,” with a cast of funny, deeply human demigods, making a mess of romance — these works showed us the art of our own lives.
Nederlans Dans Theater
This contemporary Dutch company made its Kennedy Center debut with two pieces by Artistic Director Paul Lightfoot and his partner, Sol Leon, and one by Crystal Pite; all three explored the inner lives of people at the fringes of our daily lives, who were often the opposite of what they seemed. Pite’s “The Statement” turned a bureaucratic coverup into a riveting, dark dance about military might and weak integrity. Lightfoot and Leon’s “Shoot the Moon” took us inside domestic walls to show us micro-episodes of unquiet desperation. These potent and engrossing mini-dramas made me feel I was inside a short story, and they rewarded — and inspired — close attention.
Mark Morris’s “Layla and Majnun”
This beautifully rendered dance-drama, with the Mark Morris Dance Group sharing the stage with Azerbaijani singers and musicians, told a classic Azerbaijani tale of lovers doomed to separation and unhappiness. Yet it also showed us what acceptance and community look like. The two lovers of the title wove in and out of an ensemble that surrounded them and bore witness to the age-old human curse of heartbreak. The new twist here was the gentle demonstration that pain is part of the never-ending tide of life, and the downhearted are never alone.
American Ballet Theatre’s “Giselle,” with Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg
Russian ballerina Osipova and ABT principal Hallberg form one of the great ballet partnerships of our age. Yet injuries and geographical separation have made them a rare sight together. They joined for a single performance of “Giselle” in May at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. It happened to be on their birthday — so karmic is their connection that they share that date. Their partnership, marked by physical vulnerability, echoes “Giselle’s” story, with its ill-fated lovers, one who risks her life to dance, the other who’s nearly destroyed by dancing. But they also found new truths in this romantic-era ballet, bringing out its passion and sensuality, and making us appreciate anew the human desire to dance, and to love, no matter the risks.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in “Members Don’t Get Weary”
In this piece, given its Washington, D.C., premiere last February, Ailey dancer turned choreographer Jamar Roberts took on the current unsettled social climate. For help, he turned — as one does — to John Coltrane. The peerless jazz saxophonist and composer is often my own go-to in disorganized moments; he can lead you into the depths unease, then slip past it toward a distant, beckoning peace. Roberts and his dancers captured the ineffable questioning in Coltrane’s music, following its winding paths and its sense of spiritual freedom. The excellent Ailey dancers made palpable an atmosphere of frustration, but they also delivered release.
This occasional program at the Kennedy Center is one of its best new ideas. Former New York City Ballet dancer Damian Woetzel is the catalyst, setting in motion a diverse group of artists for a one-night-only show, where he’s also the emcee. The installment last March, in the intimate Terrace Theater, felt like a house party with your most fabulous friends: Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, the rubber-limbed, Memphis Jookin virtuoso; Caroline Shaw, the Pulitzer Prize-winning violinist, vocalist and composer; the string quartet Brooklyn Rider; ballerinas Sara Mearns, of NYCB, and Patricia Delgado, recently retired from Miami City Ballet; and former Merce Cunningham Dance Company members Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Choreographer Pam Tanowitz contributed a witty, specially commissioned threesome. This freewheeling, spur-of-the-moment collaboration was simply delightful.
San Francisco Ballet
Boldness: That’s what I associate with this extraordinary company. It also boasts some of the finest dancers in the ballet world, so its two programs of new works at the Kennedy Center in October was a big event. Works by Edwaard Liang (“The Infinite Ocean”) and Trey McIntyre were the standouts. McIntyre’s “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem” took as its interesting subject the choreographer’s fantasy of meeting his grandfather as a young man. Aging, solitude and grace were gathered gently together, with a light touch.
Washington Ballet, “Mixed Masters”
Jerome Robbins was feted in this program last April, which also featured fine performances of Frederick Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations” and Balanchine’s “Serenade.” The brilliance of Robbins’s comic “The Concert (Or, the Perils of Everybody)” is that although he pokes fun at dancers’ passion for their art — characters include sparring music lovers, flamboyant hat-wearers, and an ensemble that grows melodramatic in the rain — 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.