The Washington Ballet
40th Anniversary Celebration: Fives, Juanita y Alicia, excerpt from Theme and Variations and others.
Washington, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
30 September 2016
“Hi! I am Julie Kent, artistic director of the Washington Ballet.” Looking ravishing in her long strapless slivery-white gown, her hair immaculately styled, the new director of the Washington Ballet introduced herself to the audience of the fully-packed Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, September 30 as she opened a one-night-only program dedicated to the company’s 40th anniversary. This event was also a fundraiser for the Washington Ballet’s community engagement and education programs.
The whole evening had a feel of a big heartwarming party, with the Washington Ballet’s fans, patrons, current and former dancers celebrating the company’s history and its past and present achievements.
It was a homecoming for Kent, who hardly needs an introduction in Washington D.C. She grew up in Potomac, Maryland, and began her dance training at Maryland Youth Ballet. At 16, Kent joined American Ballet Theatre, where she enjoyed a nearly 30-year career, becoming one of most accomplished classical ballerinas of her generation. After retiring from ABT in summer of 2015, Kent assumed her new role as the artistic leader of the Washington Ballet taking over from Septime Webre, who stepped down from the helm after leading the company for the last 17 years.
During the evening, Kent made three appearances onstage (each time in a different frock, one more glamorous than the other) to introduce each part of the three-act program. In her welcoming remarks, she paid tribute to her predecessors and proclaimed her arrival as the beginning to “a new era of ballet in Washington.” In a short video that followed ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie spoke with tenderness and warm appreciation of Mary Day, the company’s late founder, who “forged the ballet scene in Washington from scratch.” (McKenzie was one of Day’s most prominent students. During his dancing days with ABT, he was also a frequent guest artist with the Washington Ballet.) In another video, Septime Webre talked about his tenure, recalling the company’s historic tour to Cuba, which happened shortly after his arrival in Washington D.C. in 1999.
Yet the main story of the evening was told, as Kent put it in her speech, “as it should be – by our dancers.” The program included two complete ballets: Fives by Choo San Goh and Juanita y Alicia by Septime Webre, both piece inherently tied to the company’s history; as well as an assortment of classical duets and the finale from George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.
The early success and national prominence of the Washington Ballet was closely associated with the Singapore-born choreographer Choo San Goh (1948-1987) known for his “dynamic, sexy, nuanced and exhilarating” ballets that “fit the company’s dancers as a glove.” His imaginative and highly-athletic Fives, from 1978, was justly regarded as the Washington Ballet’s calling card. The ballet is set to a selection of movements from Ernest Bloch “Concerto Grosso No. 1 for String Orchestra” and displays Goh’s trademarks: aerobic energy, pulsating steps, intricate (and often acrobatic) partnering and a sleek modern appeal. Dressed in dazzling red, the solid cast which comprised both longtime company members and newcomers delivered this work with kinetic aplomb, channeling the choreography’s eloquence and physicality to great effect.
But it was Webre’s deeply personal Juanita y Alicia that resonated with the audience – and the dancers – the most. Based on his childhood memories, it was the first ballet Webre made for the company as its artistic director. Accompanied by the Cuban popular hits (performed live onstage by the outstanding local band Sin Miedo), Junita y Alicia is soaked in nostalgia and a sense of inevitability of passing time. I felt as if I was looking at a family photo album, with the old pictures vividly coming to life as the dancers, dressed in pure white, took center stage in what looked like a series of poignant snapshots. In the central role, the Cuban-born Gian Carlo Perez was particularly memorable for his impressive style and dramatic expression.
There were no earth-shattering moments in a string of gala staples of the final segment of the program. The Korean ballerina EunWon Lee and the Cuban dancer Rolando Sarabia (both are Kent’s most recent hires) smoothly sailed through the acrobatics of Black Swan extravaganza; the company’s veteran Jonathan Jordan provided a gallant and secure support to Venus Villa in the pas de deux from The Nutcracker and Maki Onuki and Brooklyn Mack bravely conquered the technical hurdles of their duet from Don Quixote. The exuberant performance of Grand Polonaise from Balanchine’s Theme and Variations capped the evening with a special sense of celebration.
There is no doubt that Kent’s arrival marks a new chapter of the Washington Ballet. She aspires to return live music to the performances – a formidable goal that was greeted with approving cheer from the audience. She also sends a strong signal about her plans to set the artistic bar higher for the company by molding and refining its classical dancing style and by including in the repertory the first-rate contemporary works. The highlights of the 2016-17 season include Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas, George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, Justin Peck’s In Creases, as well as Kent’s restaging of the full-length Giselle with her husband Victor Barbee, who assumed the position of the Washington Ballet’s associate artistic director. For her first commissioned work, Kent selected Ethan Stiefel, the former ABT star yet a relatively unknown choreographer – a peculiar but intriguing choice. In all, the company is facing an ambitious season ahead and it remains to be seen if the dancers will be up to its rigorous challenges; yet one thing is certain – the Washington Ballet and its audiences will be living in interesting times.