The Washington Ballet
Director’s Cut: PRISM, State of Wonder, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
Washington, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
26 February 2016
Three pure dance works – PRISM by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, State of Wonder by Septime Webre and In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe – made the Washington Ballet’s “Director’s Cut,” a new program presented at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater during the last week of February. All the pieces on the program were united by a common thread – the athleticism, authority and technical prowess of the company’s dancers, qualities that Septime Webre, who announced his stepping down at the end of June 2016 as Washington Ballet’s artistic director, has chiseled and polished over the course of his 17-year tenure.
It has been 10 years since I last saw Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated at the Kennedy Center. In 2006, the Kirov Ballet (now Mariinsky) brought a quadruple bill titled “William Forsythe Masterworks” to the Opera House, showing their classically-trained dancers in a completely different light. I would never forget a tall and leggy redhead, who fiercely sliced the air with her impossibly long, gorgeous limbs, leading the squad of nine dancers in what looked like a rigorous military exercise. The 23-year-old Yekaterina Kondaurova commanded the stage even then, at the very beginning of her prominent career.
While Mariinsky was dancing next door at the Opera House, presenting Raymonda, a traditional offering for a company known for its pure classical style; the Washington Ballet dancers took their stab at Forsythe’s In the Middle, a work that was deemed “revolutionary” by the ballet world when it was created in 1987 for Paris Opera Ballet. Needless to say, the Washington Ballet looked comfortably at home in this challenging piece.
A study in extremes, set to an electronic percussive score by the Dutch composer Thom Willems, In the Middle is bleak and austere in appearance. (Forsythe is also credited for costume, stage and lighting designs.) The dancers populate a huge black space decorated with a pair of golden cherries suspended (or somewhat elevated) from the ceiling in the middle of the stage – hence the ballet’s title. The choreography here is an unstoppable and unrelenting flow of dance energy, with the movements coming in supercharged brief surges, one more powerful and exhilarating than then next.
The superb cast, led by Maki Onuki, Sona Kharatian and Gian Carlo Perez (in the role originally created by POB’s Isabelle Guerin, Sylvie Guillem and Manuel Legris), conquered Forsythe’s hurdles with admirable technical expertise and cool attitude as they briskly strolled and jogged around the stage, punctuating the space with their arms and legs, twisting and stretching their bodies as if trying to expel the accumulated tension, even aggression, that threatened to consume them. Their dancing was taut, uninhibited and daring throughout. Among the leads, the outstanding Kharatian was of particular note.
The Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa created PRISM for the Washington Ballet in 2014. The ballet, set to the famous piano improvisation The Köln Concert, by Keith Jarrett, became an instant hit with the Washington audience. Ochoa’s choreography – vibrant, youthful and imaginative – carries a special improvisational atmosphere to go hand in hand with Jarrett’s music. The dance unfolds as a sequence of vignettes – solos and ensembles – which like a prism capture and transform the melodic intricacies and moods of the score into ballet movements. It’s a fine-crafted piece and a good fit for the company, revealing all the best qualities of the dancers. On Friday night, Jonathan Jordan was the leader of the strong cast that included Daniel Savetta, Javier Morera, Gian Carlo Perez, Oscar Sanchez, Francesca Dugarte, Venus Villa, Morgann Rose, Esmiana Jani and Ashley Murphy.
The Washington Ballet premiered Septime Webre’s State of Wonder nearly 10 years ago. Just like Ocha’s PRISM, this piece has an episodic structure. Unlike PRISM, though, the structure here is clearly defined by the music to which it is set: Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations.” Each variation features its own cast and holds its own story. It’s an enjoyable piece and the dancers seemed to be having fun in it from start to finish. The ballet was staged by the Washington Ballet’s former dancers, who were part of the original cast: Luis R. Torres, Michele Jimenez, and Erin Mahoney-Du. Both Torres and Jimenez are listed as the company’s ballet masters. As the era of Septime Webre at the Washington Ballet comes to an end, it’s good to know that the company’s tradition continues.