The long goodbye has begun. A standing ovation greeted Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre when he stepped onto the stage Thursday to introduce the program to follow.
Opening-night audiences have been unfailingly enthusiastic in welcoming Webre’s witty and illuminating pre-show remarks over the years. But surely it was his surprise announcement earlier this month that he is leaving his post in June after 17 years that raised the intensity in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. It showed in the audience’s salute (and in Webre’s delighted reaction). It was in the high energy of the dancers, as they dived into William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”; Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Prism”; and Webre’s “State of Wonder.”
Intensity also characterized each of the works, gathered under the program title “Director’s Cut.” Webre said in a previous interview that he had been mulling his departure from the company for some time, and this program made it clear he had a farewell in mind as he was planning it. Here, captured in one evening, are the most prized elements of the Webrian aesthetic that has powered the Washington Ballet to its impressive growth over the years: vigorous, unexpected music, great gusts of movement and a direct connection to the audience.
Forsythe created his “In the Middle” in 1987 as a way to explode and reconfigure the leggy, ultra-sophisticated style of the Paris Opera Ballet. Ballet companies and audiences love it because it respects the clean lines of ballet while thoroughly shaking up the vocabulary and the approach. There is no preening prettiness here as the dancers, dressed nonchalantly in green and black practice wear, fling their legs to the sky with a hard, dominating glare at the audience. There is no musical and emotional ambivalence, as hips crank open to the eerie industrial clang of Thom Willems’s music, created with Lesley Stuck. It’s dynamic and arresting, like a rhythmic construction site, an inspired jam played on steel beams and girders.
Some years ago, every modest-size company was performing this piece. But seeing it now felt like a rediscovery. The Washington Ballet cast, led by Ayano Kimura, Brooklyn Mack and Kateryna Derechyna, looked splendid and wholly at ease, and made it fresh again.
Lopez Ochoa’s “Prism,” which she created for the company in 2014, mines the light, skimming rhythms in Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert.” This remarkable recording of his piano improvisations came about when the wrong piano showed up for one of his performances and Jarrett chose not to go with his original plan. The dancers embodied the spirit of Jarrett’s left turn, and his resilience, in a pleasing, stylish whirl with touches of wit. More conventional piano playing was on view in Webre’s work, featuring the S&R Foundation’s Principal Artist-in-Residence Ryo Yanagitani on a raised platform onstage, playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” He was soon joined by Todd Fickley on harpsichord, wheeled on stage on his own rolling platform. Although there is ample room for editing here, one wouldn’t have wanted to lose a bit of the dancers’ — and the musicians’ — joy in performing.
The Washington Ballet performs the “Director’s Cut” program at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, with cast changes. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.