What do you give an audience who has everything? Washington’s dancegoers are among the nation’s most sophisticated and privileged, so companies must think carefully about what to put in front of them.
Yet smart programming doesn’t always happen. We so often see the dance equivalents of paisley ties and cashmere socks. You know the culprits: the Balanchine staples, the story ballet we’ve seen so many times that we might just as well dance it ourselves.
How refreshing that for its first program of the season, the Washington Ballet chose its offerings well.
None of the works is a masterpiece, but each is well-constructed, threaded through with surprises. And, most welcome of all, none suffers from overexposure. All three — Hans van Manen’s “5 Tangos,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” and Jiri Kylián’s “Petite Mort” — are company premieres.
This is a season of company milestones. The Washington Ballet is celebrating its 70th birthday, and artistic director Septime Webre is marking his 15th year at the helm. Perhaps that is what has put him in such an enthusiastic and generous mood, even for a man whose default setting is exuberant. This program, which opened Thursday and runs through Sunday at Sidney Harman Hall, is a gift to his dancers as well as a bonus for ticket-buyers, for it not only shows off the performers’ deft physicality, but also stretches them in its musical and stylistic demands.
At times, the stretching was obvious and didn’t hit the target. “Petite Mort” is the program’s closer and the most highly touted work, lending its name to the whole evening. It involves several props, including fencing foils and a billowing, wavelike expanse of black cloth. The men looked a little afraid of the foils Thursday, and the cloth was not handled smoothly, either.
“Five Tangos” was the hit of the evening, a work of crisp, satisfying visual geometry with the playful kick of Astor Piazzolla, whose tango compositions always sound like little film scores — witty, theatrical and compressed. In this rarely seen work, van Manen infused drama and sensuality into an austere, postmodern style, so we got sleek lines and delicious warmth at the same time.
Among many fine moments was the point at which one of the male dancers ran past several women, and they each turned and watched him hungrily. No anonymous corps of dancers here. Sona Kharatian, with that magnificent breadth across her shoulders, had a marvelous turn tearing the hearts out of half a dozen men, who watched her swooping in front of them in stunned silence.
Yet she could have delivered more heat. I felt this about all of the dancers in this work, which was well-executed but lacked danger. These were tangos, after all. The tango isn’t a dance of nice couples behaving well. It is unpredictable; it burns. You want to see fire in the eyes. Yet consistently, the dancers looked down at the stage floor as they whirled across it. Why were they so shy?
Sometimes the shy moment elevates a work — or rather, the moment when someone shy draws us in. This is the heart of “Polyphonia,” which Wheeldon created for the New York City Ballet in 2001, quite early in his career, with jittery, spacey music by György Ligeti. The dancing, too, is jittery and overly busy at times, save for one solo that takes you to a quiet, private place.
It offered the best gift of all, a brand new way to see someone familiar. Maki Onuki is known for her iron technique and shining energy, but here she was utterly transformed. In the secretive half-light (Penny Jacobus re-created Mark Stanley’s original design), Onuki was delicate and wispy, as if suspended in the very atmosphere. You could almost feel the air moving as she moved, buoying her up, because how else could she turn so slowly and remain so weightlessly poised? As eye-catching as high energy and props can be, there’s nothing so rare and enduring in the theater as a mystery.
The Washington Ballet performs works by Kylián, van Manen and Wheeldon through Oct. 26 at Sidney Harman Hall. Tickets $37-$132. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.