There’s quite a different feel to the Washington Ballet these days, and it’s exciting to witness. At a recent rehearsal of “Giselle,” which the company will perform March 1-5, I watched Artistic Director Julie Kent and her husband, Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee, meticulously mold the fine details of expressiveness and form as their dancers practiced the opening minutes of the ballet.
Instead of taped music, the excellent concert pianist Glenn Sales played the score, a sophisticated new development. With such encouraging signs from the new directors, I’m eagerly awaiting each of the company’s four programs this spring. It’s so difficult to pick a single upcoming program as a favorite, in fact, that I’m recommending them all. Given the ambition, variety and sheer number of works the Washington Ballet will offer, this is a season of historic reach and artistic significance.
Having only recently closed out long performing careers at American Ballet Theatre, both Kent and Barbee have intimate connections to most if not all of the ballets scheduled this season. This, too, raises expectations for especially sensitive performances stemming from the directors’ experience and coaching.
“Giselle,” the beloved romantic-era ballet steeped in heartbreak and the supernatural, will feature a welcome luxury: the return of the Washington Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Charles Barker of the ABT and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. “In Creases,” a 2012 work by the gifted young choreographer Justin Peck, is the centerpiece of the company’s “Kylian, Peck, Forsythe” program March 29-April 2 at Sidney Harman Hall. This was the first work Peck created for New York City Ballet, the company for which he’s now resident choreographer. The music is Philip Glass’s “Four Movements for Two Pianos,” which Sales and Eric Himy will perform live for the Washington Ballet. Along with “In Creases” (a company premiere, and also new to the area), the program reprises Jiri Kylian’s witty, theatrical “Petite Mort” and William Forsythe’s sharp, astringent “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.”
Another company premiere by an important contemporary artist — Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” — anchors the “Balanchine, Ratmansky, Tharp” program April 26-30 at Warner Theatre. Ratmansky created his poetic and deeply musical work for American Ballet Theatre, and Kent starred in the original cast, a rare, deep connection to a ballet that is bound to offer benefits for the dancers and audiences. Ryo Yanagitani will perform the titular keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti that accompany Ratmansky’s work. Balanchine’s sparkling classical feast “Allegro Brillante” and the sass of Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs” round out the bill.
The season’s finale, May 25-27 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, features a world premiere by former ABT principal Ethan Stiefel, with an original score by American composer Adam Crystal. Of equal interest are Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” the British master’s lively distillation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (music by Mendelsohn), and fellow Englishman Antony Tudor’s “Lilac Garden,” a quietly ruthless excursion through the flaming emotions and suppressed agony of lovers forced to part, with music by Ernest Chausson. The Washington Ballet Orchestra performs for all three works, conducted by Martin West.
Will these be the greatest performances of the season? They will undoubtedly be the most consequential, given Kent’s and Barbee’s goal of elevating the company’s abilities and reputation.
Other standout companies coming to town include Mark Morris Dance Group, at George Mason University Feb. 24-25, with four works, including Morris’s new “Pure Dance Items.” The Martha Graham Dance Company makes two appearances: at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on March 3, in conjunction with the exhibition “Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern,” and at George Mason on April 28. For its first visit in 13 years, Germany’s Hamburg Ballet offers a dark, mysterious, highly imaginative but decidedly non-Disney version of “The Little Mermaid,” created by Artistic Director John Neumeier, at the Kennedy Center March 28-April 2. And the sampler series Ballet Across America , one of the Kennedy Center’s best ideas ever with its shared programs of regional troupes, returns April 17-23. The companies and repertoire have been selected by ABT ballerina Misty Copeland and Peck.
Read more from the Spring Arts Preview: