The Jazz/Blues Project: Bird’s Nest, PRISM, Blue Until June
Washington, Sidney Harman Hall
30 January 2014
Jazz is many things. As America’s indigenous musical voice, it has been a source of infinite inspiration for generations of musicians. Jazz is virtuosity and harmony, velocity and feeling. It’s cool and smooth, riveting and unsettling. It’s an attitude and a way of life. Jazz is popular and classical, old and new at the same time. Jazz is improvisation – unpredictable and irresistible. And, as the most recent performance of the Washington Ballet revealed, jazz is colorful and theatrical, hot and hip and a perfect setting for inspired contemporary ballet.
The Jazz/Blues Project – a three-dance program presented by the Washington Ballet at the Sidney Harman Center – had the ambiance of a big, inviting party. And it was the party you didn’t want to miss. Live jazz, played by the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, greeted the audience as they entered the theater, setting a merry tone for the evening right from the start. All three works on the program were inspired by jazz and blues. The evening’s soundtrack featured compositions by such icons as Charlie “Bird” Parker and Keith Jarrett and songs made popular by blues diva Etta James. The presence of live music (the excellent band played during the opening and closing dances) made the entire affair all the more enjoyable and authentic.
Val Caniparoli’s Bird’s Nest – the first dance of the evening – is a vivid proof that ballet and jazz are meant for each other. It’s an immediately likable and utterly theatrical piece – a fond tribute to the late bebop saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, whose nine compositions serve as the dance’s evocative backdrop. The ballet was originally commissioned by the Vail International Dance Festival and premiered by the Washington Ballet in 2000.
Inspired by Parker’s improvisational wizardry, Caniparoli ably injects the spirit of jazz into the ballet’s steps. The movements are still classical, but twisted this way and that, spun a little faster, and infused with zest and sex appeal for good measure. The piece is finely crafted; even though at times the choreography gets excessively busy as if attempting to match Parker’s prodigious ability to express so much in his music in so little time.
In the opening number, a 12-member cast re-creates the heated vibe of a big city night club of the 1940s to maximum theatrical effect. Dressed in casual clothes, the dancers ride the rolling waves of jazz with the infectious sense of fun and seem to savor every moment of their performance.
A radiant Maki Onuki, wearing a flowing yellow dress and sporting a red hairdo, was a showstopper in her own right in an alluring duet with the impressively muscular Luis R. Torres. The couple had all the technical chops and great chemistry to boot. They swooned to the languorous sounds of Lover Man, channeling the playful and the wild side of their partnership to the hilt. Sona Kharatian and Jared Nelson took center stage in a relaxed, sensitive pas de deux set to a melancholy April in Paris. Both are superb dancers and hardcore veterans of the company, with legions of fans in the audience. They relished their moment on stage, fully displaying the wide range of emotions that emerged from the music and movements. A recent addition to the Washington Ballet’s roster, the outstanding Ekateryna Derechyna, reveled in a whirling solo in Just Friends; and a sextet of ballerinas in a vivacious Okiedoke made for an exhilarating showcase of the company’s girl power.
It’s easy to fall in love with Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert; one doesn’t have to be a devoted jazz fan to recognize the seductive appeal of this wonderfully lyrical and hypnotic solo-piano improvisation. It was a miracle on its own that this one-hour impromptu performance, which took place nearly 40 years ago at the Cologne Opera House in Köln, Germany, was recorded at all; it’s said that then-29-year-old Jarrett almost cancelled his engagement because of technical problems with the opera house’s grand piano. From the very first five-note motif, the jazz pianist took his audience on an amazing musical journey, creating a world of sheer beauty and transcendence. It was piano jazz at its most romantic. The recording of this concert still remains the best-selling jazz solo record of all time.
PRISM, a world premier by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, is a 30-minute work set to an excerpt of the original 1975 recording of the Köln Concert. It’s a vibrant, attention-grabbing piece, in which the moods, energies and colors of Jarrett’s jazz come to live.
Ochoa has a great sense of showmanship and a knack for a visually striking display. In PRISM, her choreography is athletic and jagged-edged, muscular and kinetic. She aptly moves the dancers on and off the stage in a non-stop succession of ensembles, some segments more successful than others. Yet the winning point of PRISM is its strong sense of musicality; every step here feels natural and flows innately from Jarrett’s vibrant improvisation. As a result, the ballet as a whole creates a gripping vision of the music itself. The well-rehearsed cast of ten dancers was invariably strong, with standout performances from Onuki, Derechyna, Torres and Corey Landolt.
Trey McIntyre’s Blue Until June concluded the program with a bang. The Howard University jazz band teamed up with an outstanding vocalist E. Faye Butler, a frequent collaborator with the Washington Ballet, for a nine-piece medley of blues songs. In addition to the top-notch musical performance, McIntyre’s choreography possessed enough exuberance, charm, wit and personality to give this party scene its own unforgettable atmosphere. From the opening number, You Can’t Talk to A Fool (by Morgann Rose) to the ballet’s closing At Last (by Francesca Dugarte and Jonathan Jordan), the dancers and the musicians captured the audience’s hearts and never let go.