Mark Morris Dance Group in 'Pepperland,' at the Kennedy Center
For this piece, created to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Morris drew inspiration from the stories told in several of the songs and from the overall creative stretch of the album, which was an outlet for the band to take on other personas and examine the ordinary/extraordinary lives of real people. With sympathy and poignancy (and wit), “Pepperland” zeroes in specifically on the lonely heart. But there’s more going on, including an occasional touch of fascism conveyed by dancers in military sunglasses, shifting into rigid formations. This darkness anchors the piece in our age of anxiety; it feels timeless and current all at once.
Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella,' at the Kennedy Center
Bourne sets his version of the classic fairy tale in 1940, in bomb-scarred London. Instead of a prince, there’s an RAF pilot with a head injury; Cinderella’s father is partially paralyzed; her stepmother is an embittered drunk; and a few creepy stepbrothers prowl around with the chain-smoking stepsisters. Sweet Cinderella is guided by a guardian angel who can turn back time. Bourne’s excellent dancers imbue their characters with subtle, expressive mannerisms that tell us about their backgrounds and points of view. These details and the updated time frame enhance the tale’s moral and spiritual ideas. In this World War II setting grounded in historical events, it’s vitally important to be not only hard-working and resilient, but also to care for one another, to open one’s doors, physically and metaphorically. This production makes the case that ordinary human kindness is the strongest magic of all.
Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, at Strathmore
Among several excellent pieces on this program, the newest, titled “New Conversations,” is a collaboration between Brown and the Mexican-born pianist Arturo O’Farrill, and offers a rich voyage of discovery. On the most obvious level, the conversation of the title is between Brown’s dancers and the musicians of O’Farrill’s ensemble, who share the stage. But an unspoken dialogue also grows among the dancers as they observe and echo one another, trading new moves, countering with slight variations. By the end, music and dancers resolve into a unified whole. Throughout, Brown’s works hold a mirror to our own tendencies to wall ourselves off or not, and to what it looks like to start conversations through gentleness, rather than rough insistence.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in 'Analogy/ Dora: Tramontane,' at the Kennedy Center
This piece, the first section of Jones’s “Analogy/Trilogy,” is a true account of geographical and moral boundary-crossing that brazenly crosses borders of its own. Dora is Jones’s mother-in-law, and transcripts of his recorded conversations with her form the text of this visually spare dance-theater work that is layered in stories and characters. As a teenager, Dora lost her family to the Nazis. She sweet-talked her way into Vichy France; working as a nurse, she kept countless Jews from being deported to German death camps. She wrestled with guilt over those she couldn’t save, and somehow kept her soul intact through lightness of spirit, a theme that binds this sprawling work. Especially impressive is Jones’s approach to form, which is bold and experimental. No surprise there: Over his long career this artist has fearlessly broken bounds in his choice of subjects, too.
The Washington Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty,' at the Kennedy Center
This traditional account of the beloved 19th-century ballet was a sparkling platform for new company member Katherine Barkman in her first major role with the troupe, and it was a personal achievement for Artistic Director Julie Kent and her husband, Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee. Exceptional care and passion for detail were evident in a production that was visually beautiful and an artistic high point on every level.
Monica Bill Barnes and Company's 'Happy Hour,' at College Park's MilkBoy Art House
The typical office party is crashed by two women in men’s clothing. Cue the laughs. What’s less expected is the sympathy that these suit-and-tie-wearing toughs elicit. They are vulgar on purpose, awkward in spite of themselves, and you laugh in recognition of how deeply these performers — Barnes, a natural comic, and the exquisitely musical Elisa Clark — understand how the human heart works. With or without cheese puffs. (Though there were plenty of those.)
'Ballet Across America,' at the Kennedy Center
This series celebrated female artistry in a profound way, with two female-led companies — Dance Theater of Harlem and Miami City Ballet — performing works by female choreographers, in collaboration with female composers and musicians. Both programs offered top-notch works, though the world premiere by Pam Tanowitz was the hands-down highlight. Titled “Gustave Le Gray No. 1,” it brought together four dancers, two from each company, along with onstage pianist Sylvia Jiang in an evolving exchange of musical and visual rhythms. The title comes from the music: Caroline Shaw’s 2012 “Gustave Le Gray” for solo piano, named for the French photographer. Throughout the music and the dancing, there’s a play of textures and endless invention; surprises upon surprises.
Maria Khoreva in the Mariinsky Ballet's 'Le Corsaire,' at the Kennedy Center
This 18-year-old sensation elevated a seriously outdated ballet in need of a major plot overhaul. My praise is not for this ballet, which features human trafficking, deplorable ethnic stereotypes and hopelessly corny scenarios. But I wholeheartedly celebrate the arrival on these shores of young Khoreva, whose star quality is pronounced. I dearly hope she will continue to flourish in the company. She possesses extreme gifts of technical finesse and flexibility, along with such subtler ones as musicality, warmth of personality, and an emotional and dramatic commitment rare in an artist of her years.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, at the Kennedy Center
Celebrating the company’s 60th anniversary, the dancers proved why it has endured. There was the lyrical emotional journey of Ailey’s “Revelations,” of course — that piece is the perennial closer of the Kennedy Center shows. But of special note was the first full-length piece by Rennie Harris, “Lazarus.” It thrusts the audience into painful territory — the black experience in the South, during and after the Great Depression. You may walk away from it, but it continues to reverberate inside you for some time. I found myself unable to forget the deeply affecting portraits of violated yet resilient bodies that Harris creates.
New York City Ballet, at the Kennedy Center
Along with “Easy” by Justin Peck and Jerome Robbins’s “In the Night,” the most talked-about piece on the company’s second program of repertory works that it brought to Washington was Kyle Abraham’s piece “The Runaway,” featuring music by Kanye West. This was a forceful and bold step for the company — for any dance company, to be honest. West’s lyrics are not to everyone’s taste and were certainly out of the ordinary for the ballet subscription audience in the Opera House. His statements about violence and ego are powerful, and Abraham met them with impressive restraint that was no less distinctive; the harrowing and deeply expressive movements are seared in memory.