Dance critic

Until Thursday night, I’d never seen a ball pit in a ballet, but now that I’ve watched dancers dive into one, whip up waves of plastic orbs, bean one another with them, juggle them and spit them out of their mouths, I never need to see another. It was that much fun. May the wonderful, wacky ball pit in Trey McIntyre’s new ballet remain his alone, an inimitable choreographic device that in his hands produces pure joy.

“Teeming Waltzes,” as the ballet is called, anchors the Washington Ballet’s “Three World Premieres” program, which runs through Sunday at the Harman Center. Choreographers Ethan Stiefel and Dana Genshaft rounded out the program with handsome works. Genshaft, in particular, is a fine new talent to watch. With her thoroughly enjoyable “Shadow Lands,” the former San Francisco Ballet soloist put forth a vision of ballet form that’s futuristic and fresh.

Taken together, the three premieres mean the Washington Ballet has taken a step forward in solving one of its biggest problems. Under Artistic Director Julie Kent, whose taste, expertise and focus lie with the canonical ballets, the organization has struggled with newness. Commissioned ballets have seemed an afterthought, premiering at the tail end of each season and created by relative newcomers, former dancers with minimal experience on the other side of the creative process

This season, that pattern has remained largely the same, but the results are altogether different. This program is a delight. “Teeming Waltzes” is a classy affair, accompanied by Strauss waltzes, performed live by a string quartet and Glenn Sales on piano. The minimalist yellow and black costumes, created by Pum Lefebure of the graphic design firm Design Army, look a little French (think of Christian Lacroix’s colorful frocks for Massine’s “Gaîté Parisienne,” at American Ballet Theatre) with a touch of ’60s mod. The bold effect is warmed by the dancers’ high-spirited rapport, in and out of the ball pit. 


Dan Roberge, left, and Andile Ndlovu in “Teeming Waltzes.” (Victoria Pickering/IGDC for the Washington Ballet)

In truth, the upstage pit offers just a brief detour from the dancing, which unspools in fluid phrases and witty, freewheeling duets between Alex Kramer and Corey Landolt, and Maki Onuki and Tobias Praetorius. McIntyre’s restraint with the jokes and his fluency in mixing ballet with vernacular gesture makes it all cohere, and the competitive antics develop smoothly into a sheer exhilaration of moving, which in the case of Onuki and Praetorius looks like flying

Genshaft made an interesting musical choice in “Shadow Lands,” with Kennedy Center composer in residence Mason Bates’s “Omnivorous Furniture,” a recording that mixed an 18-piece orchestra with digital tracks. The effect is by turns jazzy, brassy and funky, and Genshaft creates a clean, spacious but otherworldly setting. The slight, barely there costumes have a luminous quality. The dancers look marvelously sleek, driven and somewhat on edge. Then Katherine Barkman enters, with her contained glamour, and she changes the subject. She’s called “the Outlier,” and her partner, Andile Ndlovu, is “the Observer,” and there’s some kind of blurred, emotional story going on, as if glimpsed through water.

It would take a couple of viewings to catch on, which I wouldn’t mind because there’s such rich internal variety in the dancing — all at a running, skimming speed, with terrific moments of authentic human reactions and double takes. At one point, Barkman shoots out her leg in arabesque, with an air of cool hostility, and Ndlovu jumps back. This piece is thrillingly confident in its strangeness.

Stiefel was limited by his musical choice in “Wood Work.” The Nordic folk songs by the Danish String Quartet were rousingly performed live. But by and large, the musicians struck a single mood, and Stiefel’s response was often repetitive. This work was beautifully costumed by Derek Nye Lockwood in a kind of homespun chic, echoing the folksy air of the dancing. The cast responded buoyantly to the lusty rhythms, but while the piece was effectively presented, it didn’t point to anything beyond the surface.


Katherine Barkman and Andile Ndlovu in Dana Genshaft’s “Shadow Lands.” (Victoria Pickering/IGDC for the Washington Ballet)

Yet after it and “Shadow Lands,” I heard expressions of relief as much as pleasure from audience members at intermission, because this program of premieres was not the disappointment that previous ones had been.

New work is the lifeblood of every art form, as Kent said in her opening remarks to the audience. Going back decades, the Washington Ballet had always been an enthusiastic showcase of it. In-house choreographers, including Septime Webre, the former director, McIntyre and the brilliant Singapore native Choo-San Goh, created works that in many cases became repertory staples, signature pieces and emphatic expressions of the company’s brand. 

At this point, the company lacks a firm concept of its brand. The process of acquiring a collection of strong new work can help bring that into focus. The key is commitment: seeing a lot of new productions and developing the ability to spot talent, establishing long-term relationships with artists of high promise and dedicating the resources. Let’s hope the strong showing of this program spurs renewed, deepened interest and investment.

The Washington Ballet’s “Three World Premieres” Through Sunday at the Harman Center. shakespearetheatre.org.