The legs, the attitude: They belonged to Sona Kharatian, the Washington Ballet’s dark-eyed slayer of souls. Her unfurling kicks, carefree arms and air of easy triumph turned the spoofy Balanchine ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” into her private playground. Kharatian’s performance as the Striptease Girl in this 1968 parody of brawling mobsters and showbiz capped the Washington Ballet’s “Balanchine + Ashton” program at the Eisenhower Theater. It also left an indelible impression of an artist who owns her work.
Kharatian is in her 20th year with the company, and her unique star quality burns as brightly as ever. Balanchine adapted “Slaughter” from his 1936 Broadway musical “On Your Toes,” with music by Richard Rodgers — lots of cymbals — and it’s little more than a lively romp of intentionally campy Broadway tropes. But Kharatian, coiling and uncoiling in her skimpy showgirl outfit and heels, has her own ideas.
Daniel Roberge’s rubber-limbed Hoofer (in a tremendous comic turn) tries to possess her, but he can’t, and she tells us why with every knowing flick of a limb. She is a sophisticated free spirit with a specific set of skills; someone who could, say, boss a guy around the tennis court while turning handsprings, then coolly saunter home for a bubble bath and some Baudelaire, in the original French.
There were other bright moments in the program, which included a crisp, ebullient account of Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante.” Maki Onuki and guest artist Marcelo Gomes, the former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer, led the cast. Onuki’s performance was especially dynamic, with a sense of continuous expansion in the extensions of her legs and sweep of her arms. Washington Ballet has long had “Allegro” in its repertoire; it sparkled with confidence. Pianist Glenn Sales gave the Tchaikovsky score an exhilarating briskness.
The two works by Frederick Ashton, the masterful British choreographer who was Balanchine’s contemporary, were not as fully realized, although “Meditation From ‘Thaïs,’ ” a soft-focus pas de deux with Eun Won Lee and Gian Carlo Perez, came closest. Both it and “Birthday Offering,” a vivid ensemble work, display Ashton’s distinctive flowing style and fluid expressiveness of the upper body.
Ashton created “Thaïs,” with music from Jules Massenet’s opera of the same name, in 1971 for the great Royal Ballet partnership of Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. In a 2001 interview, Dowell described the ballerina’s effect as “a vision. . . . She’s meant to float around me like smoke.” Lee captured this image, appearing weightless as she curled around Perez in wispy, glamorous ways as he suspended her with invisible strength.
Executing devilishly swift-footed steps and masking the effort was a steep challenge in “Birthday Offering,” however. Compared with Ashton’s works, much modern choreography neglects a fully three-dimensional use of the upper body, and many ballet dancers are understandably limited in their range. Freedom and mobility in the shoulders, spine and waist may well develop with more exposure.
The evening began with a brief, sweet demonstration by Washington School of Ballet students, to mark the school’s 75th anniversary. Steady development is clearly what Artistic Director Julie Kent has in mind. In ballerinas such as Kharatian, Onuki and Lee, she has exemplary models of artists who seem to thrive in the face of challenge and continuously improve.
The Washington Ballet performs “Balanchine + Ashton” through Sunday, with cast changes, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. $25-$170. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.