Is it a commentary on womanhood, smothered in a mask of beauty, reduced to sexualized body parts?
In a handsome new work for the Washington Ballet, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa delivers another interpretation. She sees Dali’s painting as an invitation to a dance, with his flower-shrouded woman as the elusive star of a jaunty ballet.
Lopez Ochoa’s “Delusional Beauty” is the centerpiece of the Washington Ballet’s season-opening program of three premieres at Harman Hall through Sunday. It’s visually stunning, with a balloon-festooned tree anchoring a stage washed in gold light. Plunky, minimalist music is supplied by Christen Lien, Aaron Martin and Zoe Keating.
Dancer Sona Kharatian, topped in a massive floral headpiece and wearing a gown that hugged her statuesque frame like a layer of gild, triggered applause as soon as the curtain rose on Thursday. Kharatian, an artist of singular presence and dramatic heat, marks her 20th anniversary with the company this season, which was probably a second, well-deserved reason for the ovation.
Yet visual impact goes only so far. I would have gladly traded the effort that went into Kharatian’s eye-catching costume and the decor for coherent choreography that fully developed at least one idea, or moved toward a distinct goal. What was at stake for the golden diva? What message did she bear? What purpose did the nine other dancers serve as they soared brightly around Kharatian, mostly oblivious to her? These basic structural points were unresolved.
There was more at issue here than logic, but having the dancers ignore the extravagant Kharatian, who’d turn heads at any Met Gala, was the most unnatural part of the piece. The ensemble was detached from the setting, as if it could have bounced in from any number of other contemporary ballets.
“Delusional Beauty” was not alone in leaving clarity of purpose on the table. There was no shortage of vision in the Washington Ballet’s program, aptly titled “NEXTsteps.” Each piece, commissioned by the company, carried a sense of forward thrust and newness. Each was striking to the eye, in bold and unexpected ways. Yet Jessica Lang’s romantic “Reverence” and John Heginbotham’s high-energy “Racecar” also left the promise of their beginnings unfulfilled by the end.
Lang’s work was accompanied by Schumann’s expressive if overheated “Symphonic Studies,” Op. 13, performed with great flair by pianist Glenn Sales. It was the most sophisticated of the three works, buoyed by Lang’s acute musicality.
In Schumann’s outpourings Lang heard giddy playfulness, and set her men cartwheeling and clapping. In the more lush musical passages, she counterpoised a subtle sense of freeze-framing, with the dancers halting momentarily so we could absorb the length and reach of their unfolding shapes. The emotional tone built from play to mature feeling.
Lang, too, was swept up in the romance. The “reverence” of the title was evidently hers: The choreographer had fallen in love with the willing ease of her dancers. This led to endless variations on the themes of sweeping lifts and ecstatic partnering, and what started as an interesting study grew too long. The same was true for Heginbotham’s bouncy “Racecar,” with the dancers in white cotton playsuits and red shoes, and an original percussive score by Jason Treuting, performed by four musicians from So Percussion. The title is a palindrome, as was the dance’s design. It was full of vigor and unexpected quirks, yet these qualities of energy were not met with depth of expression, and I was unconvinced about what artistic purpose they served.
These new works cried out for a dance dramaturge, an experienced eye to support the choreographer’s vision and — crucially — to advocate for some signposts along the way to point toward a statement, a narrative or the development of a meaningful idea. The dancers are so good, they deserve works of more refinement.
The evening opened with a “défilé” demonstration of beautifully self-possessed Washington School of Ballet students, choreographed by Artistic Director Julie Kent in honor of the school’s 75th anniversary. It was a charming display of ballet’s future.
The Washington Ballet performs “NEXTsteps,” a program of new works, through Oct. 27 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. washingtonballet.org.