Ballet Across America
Opening Night Celebration
Washington, Kennedy Center Opera House
17 April 2017
Ballet Across America – a festival that showcases the stylistic, creative and geographical diversity of American ballet – returned to the Kennedy Center this month. It’s the fourth in the series, which originally started back in 2008 and had subsequent iterations in 2010 and 2013. Since its inception, unprecedented in the depth and breadth of its reach, the festival has brought to Washington, D.C. nearly 20 large and small regional ballet companies; many of which were performing on the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House for the first time. Among the companies that participated in Ballet Across America over the years have been Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Ballet Arizona, Ballet Austin, Ballet West, Boston Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Dance Theater of Harlem, Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Sarasota Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet), and Washington Ballet.
Previously, for each season, the participants of Ballet Across America were selected by the Kennedy Center; there were three separate programs and nine ballet companies, each performing a single one-act work. This year the format changed, with an opening one-night-only celebration, followed by two different triple bills, each curated by a special guest. This year, the program’s curators were American Ballet Theatre (ABT) principal Misty Copeland and New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck.
Copeland selected Nashville Ballet, The Black Iris Project and Complexions Contemporary Ballet to be part of the festival this year; Peck’s choice included L.A. Dance Project, Joffrey Ballet, and Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion. Each of the two programs will be performed three times.
The opening night festivities – a kick-off gala of sorts – gave the audience plenty to enjoy, not only offering a sneak preview of the events to come but ultimately turning into a warm, genuine celebration of dance. The evening was hosted by New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns, who spoke from a podium, introducing the evening’s lineup as well as the festival’s curators, Copeland and Peck, who briefly addressed the audience from the stage.
The first part of the gala opened with the world premiere of a film titled At This Stage by former Miami City Ballet dancer Ezra Hurwitz. Made in the style of a documentary, it featured a group of students from the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, who spoke about their hopes, dreams and aspirations. Then the young dancers appeared live onstage in the charming and lyrical Garden of Dreams, a ballet created specifically for them by Jeremy McQueen, an up-and-coming choreographer and artistic director of the Black Iris Project. This visually pleasing piece, classical in idiom and uplifting in spirit, was set to the final movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor and proved a perfect vehicle for the young talents. Dressed in appealing costumes designed by Mondo Morales, the splendid cast included Max Azaro, Pablo González, Kangmi Kim, Gabrielle La Mura, Abbey Marrison, Katherine Sonnekus and Ingrid Thoms.
It was a special treat to see two esteemed ABT principals, Marcelo Gomes and Stella Abrera, in a beautifully poetic pas de deux from Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading. Danced to music by Antonín Dvořák, this fluid duet suggested romantic longing coupled with a certain throbbing melancholy. Responding to the music with wonderful sensitivity and elegance, the exquisitely supple Abrera danced with special serenity and grace; the stately Gomes, in turn, was a superb partner.
The dancing of the former ABT star, Desmond Richardson, was another unexpected and welcome surprise. He performed a striking solo titled Imprint/Maya – a tribute to American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. The piece was choreographed by Dwight Rhoden to an original score by David Rozenblatt. At 48, Richardson is still a remarkable dancer; his physique is impressive, his technical control and expressive power breathtaking. Richardson and Rhoden are co-artistic directors of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, appearing later in the festival.
The second part of the evening opened with another short film – the world premiere of Now More Than Ever, also directed by Hurwitz. An apt showcase for the spectacular spaces of the Kennedy Center as well as the remarkable dancers from ABT, the film featured Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston, Marcelo Gomes, Calvin Royal III and James Whiteside, literally flying through the Center’s spacious terraces, halls, and theaters.
Two principal dancers of Miami City Ballet (MCB), Jeanette Delgado and Renan Cerdeiro, took the stage next. The couple performed a lovely and wittily-crafted pas de deux, Chutes and Ladders, the first commissioned work by Justin Peck for the excellent troupe from Miami. Set to the first movement of Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, the ballet is a little gem, full of youthful spirit, humor, and utter charm. The Brazilian-born Cerdeiro is one of the brightest stars in the MCB’s roster. He gave a memorable portrayal of Albrecht in the company’s production of Giselle this season; and his leading role performance in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Fairy’s Kiss was notable on every level. It was a thrill to see him here at the gala dancing with the much-loved Delgado as well.
The opening night celebration concluded with a rousing performance by Nashville Ballet. The company brought Concerto (2014) to the Kennedy Center – a work created by its artistic director Paul Vasterling, to an original piano score by singer and songwriter Ben Folds. The young and enthusiastic troupe performed this invigorating piece in its entirety during the gala and will reprise it again as part of the festival.