With its current series, the Washington Ballet pays tribute to the rock-romanticism that the Beatles unleashed in their first American appearances 50 years ago.
Although the program is titled “British Invasion: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” the highlight belongs to an invading Brit of an altogether different stripe. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his not-a-rock-ballet piece “There Where She Loved,” which is sandwiched between the Beatles and Stones homages, is the chief reason to see this show, which runs at the Kennedy Center through Sunday evening.
Wheeldon’s intimate work, which unfolds its love scenes like time-lapse views of a blooming and then decaying rose, shares almost nothing with the foot-tapping bounce and lightheartedness of Trey McIntyre’s Beatles opus, “A Day in the Life,” and Christopher Bruce’s Rolling Stones playlist, “Rooster.” Nothing, that is, except for the use of vocals as accompaniment, which is less common in concert dance than you might think. Twyla Tharp’s numerous Frank Sinatra ballets and dance revues and Mark Morris’s frequent use of singers and choruses are the premier examples.
You don’t learn anything new about the Stones or the Beatles in “Rooster” or “A Day in the Life” —unless (existential gasp!) there are those in the audience not already versed beat for beat (like us geezers?) in the variable and irresistible accelerations of such songs as “Paint It Black,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” The choreographic responses were witty and sometimes clever but occasionally overworked.
Each piece had a few standout moments. Jared Nelson, one of the company’s prime technicians, preened outrageously in “Rooster,” with a three-day growth of stubble, while at another point Morgann Rose was tossed overhead in a breathtaking spiral, like an Archimedes’ screw, as the rising tension of “Ruby Tuesday” trilled from the Stones’ throats like an orchestral crescendo. In “A Day in the Life,” the revelation was seeing Brooklyn Mack, the company’s jumper, padding around softly and lending a velvety rebound to the stuttering steps of “Mother Nature’s Son.”
But “There Where She Loved” offered a deeper experience. Its musical accompaniment, drawn from Chopin and Kurt Weill, was played by the sensitive Glenn Sales on solo piano in the orchestra pit, with soprano CarrieAnne Winter and mezzo soprano Shelley Waite singing on the Eisenhower Theater stage — though there should be a better word than “singing” for spilling one’s very soul onto the stage or sending high notes into the audience like golden soap bubbles with a sound both pure and wise.
This piece was all about the transference of pain. Waite’s voice in “Surabaya-Johnny” was deliberately rough-edged, as if scarred from life’s sharper edges; you could feel the ache. In “Nana’s Lied,” her wry melancholy was matched by one of the most beautiful dance passages: A group of lovers leaves Francesca Dugarte alone, nearly collapsed on the stage, and as she bends backward, blown over by sadness, those heavy words (by Bertolt Brecht) seem to rise from her own throat. One of the male dancers comes back to her, spins around a bit with her and walks away as Dugarte watches, dumbfounded that she’s being left again. It was a searing union of action, vocals and expression.
There were many poignant pairings, including Luis Torres and Aurora Dickie in a heated wrestling bout during the song “Je ne t’aime pas.” On the face of it, “I don’t love you” is a curious statement with which to end a ballet about romance — and Waite all but shouted that declaration at us in blood-drenched French. But the words were only part of the climax. Despite the conflicting emotions of their last, frantic entanglement, not even Torres and Dickie had the final say. That was left to Sales’s sad, tender piano, bearing quiet witness to all the upheaval.