Don’t talk to Septime Webre about the apparent incongruity of ballet-rock music pairings — about the way rock’s populist, let-it-all-hang-out ethos might seem to clash with ballet’s high-art identity and impulse toward discipline, refinement and control. The Washington Ballet artistic director thinks the two are natural partners.
“Rock shakes up ballet’s staid qualities, and ballet seems to illuminate the poetry inherent in rock’s lyrics and sound,” he says.
That argument paves the way for the Washington Ballet’s “British Invasion: The Beatles & the Rolling Stones,” running at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater from Wednesday through Sunday. The program showcases Trey McIntyre’s Beatles-scored “A Day in the Life” and Christopher Bruce’s Rolling Stones riff “Rooster.” (Also in the lineup, British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved,” set to music by Kurt Weill and Frederic Chopin.)
The Washington Ballet has paid homage to rock before — in the 2011 offering “Rock & Roll,” for instance. In an e-mail interview during a trip to Berlin, Webre explained that rock choreography intrigues him because it involves “pushing the boundaries of what we think ballet expression can be about.”
Of course, Webre’s troupe is hardly the first to stake out this territory. Over the years, many toe-shoe-conversant companies and choreographers have turned to rock (or the sub-genre known as pop) for reasons that have doubtless included a desire for timeliness and beyond-the-ivory-tower relevance, a hope of broadening audiences, an appreciation for musical vigor, or — as dance critics sometimes gripe — a quest for novelty. The following list, by no means exhaustive, cites a few notable instances of the trend, while leaving out ballets set to the oeuvres of Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Beck and others:
“Mods and Rockers” (1963)
British choreographer Peter Darrell’s “Mods and Rockers” has been called the first ballet set to Beatles tunes. With a storyline about rival youth gangs, the piece debuted in London, courtesy of Western Theatre Ballet. With better-late-than-never resolve, the Sarasota Ballet gave “Mods and Rockers” its U.S. premiere in 1996.
Set to music by Crome Syrcus, a rock band assembled to create an original score (inspired by the likes of Iron Butterfly), Robert Joffrey’s sultry mixed-media production became a sensation. The first ballet featured on the cover of Time, it presaged multiple Joffrey Ballet forays into the rock-pop world.
He sure pirouettes a mean pinball? In 1970, choreographer Fernand Nault created a version of the Who’s rock opera “Tommy” for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, giving the Montreal-based company an international hit, which sold out its 1971 New York City engagement.
Inspired by counterculture idealism and created during the Joffrey Ballet’s residency in Berkeley, Calif., “Trinity” was choreographed by Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino to music by Alan Raph and Lee Holdridge. One sequence featured flickering candles. When the Joffrey Ballet took the piece to the Soviet Union in 1974, the first Leningrad performance sparked a 27-minute standing ovation.
“Deuce Coupe ” (1973)
When the Joffrey commissioned a work from Twyla Tharp, she produced this seminal crossover dance — her breakthrough — set to music by the Beach Boys. During performances, graffiti virtuosos spray-painted panels onstage, emphasizing the daring bridging of the high art-low art divide. Tharp would root many subsequent works in popular music, including tunes by Chuck Berry, Billy Joel and — a touchstone — Frank Sinatra.
“The Catherine Wheel” (1981)
For “The Catherine Wheel” — produced, none too successfully, on Broadway — Tharp commissioned her first score from a rock composer: David Byrne of the Talking Heads. Purists might quibble about whether the piece might better be considered modern dance. But Jennifer Homans, author of the well-received book “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet,” says Tharp is historically “the major figure” in establishing ballet’s affinity for rock and popular music. Tharp is “a bridge between the classical and contemporary dance worlds, and between them both and popular culture,” Homans says.
Laura Dean, Charles Moulton, Peter Pucci and Margo Sappington choreographed to the music of Prince to create this blockbuster, which helped the Joffrey Ballet — yes, that company again! — out of a financial tight spot in the years after Robert Joffrey’s death. The Kennedy Center added seats to meet demand when the work arrived in D.C.
“Shed Your Skin: The Indigo Girls Project” (2001)
There’s a distinctly masculine cast to the musical acts that have contributed to the best-known rock ballets. But the Atlanta Ballet showed that female musicians, too, can help give Marius Petipa’s artform a heartfelt guitar-chord spin: The folk-rock duo performed live in the premiere run of the ballet, choreographed by Sappington and revived in 2004.
The Washington Ballet’s upcoming program includes Christopher Bruce’s 1991 “Rooster,” which the company first tackled in 2011. “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Ruby Tuesday” and six other Rolling Stones tracks provide the sonic energy for the piece, which the company took along as key repertoire when it traveled to Turkey in 2011.
“A Day in the Life” (2006)
Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman praised the “wit and playfulness” and subtle “emotional journey” in choreographer Trey McIntyre’s Beatles-scored work when the Washington Ballet premiered it in 2006. The tunes include the eponymous apprehension-filled fantasia, as well as “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
At the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, March 5-9. About 2 hours, 15 minutes. 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.