Correction: An earlier version of this story transposed the descriptions of two dancers. Corey Landolt was the dancer who partnered with Maki Onuki; Luis R. Torres was the dancer who partnered with Kateryna Derechyna. This version has been corrected.
Jazz music has always been an improviser’s medium, a genre that is most hypnotizing when its performers are feeling, not planning, and drawing from impulse, not reason.
And in the Washington Ballet’s Thursday performance of a trio of jazz- and blues-themed ballets, that ethos seemed to evoke from the company some of its most instinctive, deeply felt dancing in recent years.
In his climactic solo in “Bird’s Nest,” Brooklyn Mack stripped away any hint of affectation, submitting himself to the rhythm of the Charlie “Bird” Parker-composed “Bloomdido.” The movement practically poured out of him: idiosyncratic ripples that tumbled from the top of his head to the tip of his finger, low arabesque jumps, and tricky turns that he made look simple. It was so joyful that his energy hung in the air of the Harman Center for the Arts long after the curtain came down and the intermission lights came up.
In a gorgeous duet with Corey Landolt in “Prism,” Maki Onuki didn’t appear to be playing any character, she was simply laying bare her own internal world. When she was curled in a ball on the floor, legs tangled, fingers crooked and splayed, you saw an aching vulnerability; when she was leaping onto Torres’s shoulders, you saw her appetite for risk. Kateryna Derechyna exhibited a similar freedom in her duet with Luis R. Torres, only in her it manifested as cool assuredness. The men were unremarkable in both of these duets, but perhaps that’s as it should be. The women shone so brightly, nothing else was needed to elevate them.
While both of these works were carried by their strong execution, each had some choreographic shortcomings. The group sections in “Bird’s Nest,” a 2000 work by Val Caniparoli, were unnecessarily busy, often leaving you feeling that if you tried to watch everything happening on stage, you ended up not seeing anything at all.
“Prism,” a world premiere by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, was set to a 1975 recording of a 28-minute jazz piano improvisation by musician Keith Jarrett. Its early sections — the ones in which the women wore primary-
colored dresses and the men wore black turtlenecks and trunks — generously and smartly left room for the dancers to inject emotion and sensitivity. But things took a strange turn when the dancers changed into black leotards with spider-weblike fabric panels. The choreography suddenly called for contortionist-style splits and some melodramatic group poses that went on for just a little too long. After getting off to such an artful start, it was disappointing when it abruptly started to look like a competition dance routine.
The evening’s closing work, Trey McIntyre’s “Blue Until June,” was its most dazzling. McIntyre has frequently played with marrying contemporary American music with this traditional dance form, including in “High Lonesome,” set to songs by alt-
rocker Beck, and “A Day in the Life,” set to Beatles tunes. This iteration of that template, which features Etta James songs, is lyrical, sensual and has a bit of a sense of humor.
In “You Can’t Talk to a Fool,” soloist Morgann Rose had a way of making you feel like she was learning the lesson of the song’s title the hard way. Her eyes telegraphed a knowing sense of resignation, but her reaches and runs had the urgency of a woman looking for some answers.
The passion reached its fever pitch in “Fool That I Am,” a lovers’ duet danced by Jared Nelson and Daniel Roberge. When it finished with Nelson grabbing the hand of a woman and walking away from Roberge, the audience audibly gasped, a testament to McIntyre’s careful choreographic construction and to Nelson’s and Roberge’s authentic performances.
The James catalogue was performed live by the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and vocalist E. Faye Butler, and the musicians proved to be the essential spark that pushed this work into overdrive. All of them, but Butler in particular, brought such soulfulness to the songs that it forced the dancers to respond in kind.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the dance partners of Maki Onuki and Kateryna Derechyna. Onuki danced with Corey Landolt; Derechyna danced with Luis R. Torres. This version has been corrected.