Keigwin + Company
Program I of The National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance season
Washington, Kennedy Center Concert Hall
The idea behind the National Symphony Orchestra’s “NEW MOVES: symphony + dance” festival was ingenious and simple: to promote American contemporary music and to attract new audiences by enlivening and spicing up the traditional symphony concert experience with live dance. Three unique programs of the festival, which took place from May 7 to May 17 at the Kennedy Center, consisted entirely of music written by American composers in the 20th and 21st centuries and also included newly-commissioned choreography performed by an American dance company, with the musicians and the dancers sharing the stage in the Concert Hall.
Conductor Thomas Wilkins, who led the National Symphony Orchestra in all three programs, called the event “a massive undertaking.” He didn’t exaggerate. The festival featured 14 pieces of music by 10 different composers and presented four world premiers by three modern-dance choreographers (Larry Keigwin, Katie Smythe, and Jessica Lang).
The first program (May 7) took off as a “typical” symphony concert of unconventional modern music, offering, as a curtain opener, the rarely-heard New England Triptych (1956) by William Schuman and then a concerto for bassoon by Marc Neikrug. Both pieces were admirably played by the orchestra; yet I found a particular delight in the Neikrug concerto, with its wondrous assemblage of melodic phrases and jarring dissonances for the orchestra and a solo bassoon. Sue Heineman, principal bassoonist of the NSO, distinguished herself in the solo part, giving a highly focused and neatly textured performance.
The dance component of the first program, which came after the intermission, featured Keigwin + Company, a New York-based contemporary dance troupe founded in 2003 by its artistic director and choreographer, Larry Keigwin. It was especially fitting that the company performed to compositions by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), a keen promoter of American contemporary music.
The Keigwin dancers are no strangers to Washington audiences. The troupe performed at the Kennedy Center twice: in 2009, at the Terrace Theater, and in 2012, at the Eisenhower Theater. Although this time the venue was much bigger, the performing space was not. The cast had to negotiate a runway-like strip of dance floor, placed on the Concert Hall stage right in front of the orchestra.
Larry Keigwin, now 42, is widely known for his playful and nonchalant choreographic style. He certainly knows how to make an audience laugh, creating dances full of gleeful energy, wicked wit and comic ingenuity. In his two pure-movement creations for the NSO festival, however, the choreographer toned down his trademark irony to a near-zero level.
The first piece, titled Episodes, was set to Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s Broadway hit musical “On the Town.” As the orchestra plunged into the vibrant, jazz-tinged score with mighty intensity and gusto, the sextet of dancers, dressed in stylishly funky clothes, rushed on and off stage in what looked like a highly athletic but rather ordinary variation on dance partnering. The dynamic cast did ignite the musical performance with the charm and animated spirit of their dancing, and the sassy costumes and evocative lighting (by Burke Wilmore) added a welcome jolt of color to the otherwise dark stage; yet overall, the piece felt somewhat fragmented and mundane. As a result, Bernstein’s sweeping music was the ultimate driving force of this music-dance partnership.
The second number, Waterfront, set to Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from the movie “On the Waterfront,” left a far better impression. As in his previous work, the choreographer was matter-of-fact and serious; yet in this dance he took some unexpected turns, steering clear of the usual dance clichés. His ingenuity paid off: the piece had a pulse and a purpose all its own. The most memorable moments of Waterfront came in the first and final sections of the piece, when the entire ensemble, clad in white, formed a line across the stage, with each dancer performing a unique set of movements – a cryptic ritual of sorts and an apt visualization of the melodic intricacies of Bernstein’s cinematic score. The overall effect was quite refreshing. The Keigwin dancers held their own, imbuing the piece with youthful energy and adding a sense of bracing novelty to your usual night with the NSO.