Balanchine + Ashton: Birthday Offering, Méditation from Thaïs, Allegro Brillante, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
Washington, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
20 February 2020
The Washington Ballet’s new program titled Balanchine + Ashton showcased four works by the two great choreographers, who “forever shaped our art form,” as the company’s artistic director, Julie Kent, put it in her opening remarks. It was a festive, heartwarming evening as the Washington Ballet celebrated an important milestone: the 75th anniversary of The Washington School of Ballet (TWSB). To highlight this occasion the program opened with a charming Défilé, choreographed by Kent to the music of Leo Delibes and performed with utmost dedication and eagerness by a group of current TWSB students.
The atmosphere of celebration was on full display in Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering, which the choreographer created in 1956 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Royal Ballet (then called the Sadler’s Wells Ballet). Daring in its complexity and virtuosity, this ballet was conceived as a glittering showpiece of the Royal Ballet’s seven ballerinas, including Margot Fonteyn. It is a very special ballet for Kent, a former star with American Ballet Theatre. “My experience being coached at age 20 by Margot Fonteyn in the gorgeous “Variation #3” that Ashton created for Svetlana Berisova remains a highlight of my career,” she wrote in the program notes.
Accompanied by the lush melodies of Alexander Glazunov, Birthday Offering is choreographed in the grand classical manner of Marius Petipa, with allusions to the imagery of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. It’s a dazzling display of crisp footwork, exquisite arabesques and whirlwind turns, with a particular emphasis on the upper-body expressiveness and fluidity. Needless to say, the ballet presents an arduous test for the ballerinas.
On opening night, the Washington Ballet’s cast wasn’t always flawless; yet the dancers made a commendable effort to bring the intricacies and spirit of Ashton’s choreography to life. In the Fonteyn role, Katherine Barkman was animated and delicate, her dancing a combination of subtlety, lyricism and precision. Victoria Arrea was playfully alluring in her solo; and the excellent Kateryna Derechyna, whose variation mixed elegance and sweeping abandon, was also a standout.
In Ashton’s languid pas de deux, Méditation from Thaïs, set to the music of Jules Massenet, Gian Carlo Perez and Eun Won Lee brought an air of sensuousness and romantic nostalgia, their dancing evoking a dreamy erotic fantasy. One moment, she is draping her body around him with ardent pliancy; the next, he is holding her aloft as a symbol of eternal love. It’s an evanescent piece, originally created for the famous partnership of Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell in 1971. Yet for all its brevity, it instantly captures our imagination for its wealth of expressive, tantalizing imagery. The towering Perez was a capable and devoted hero, partnering a petite and wispy Lee with touching delicacy and adoration; and she, in turn, luxuriated in his strong arms – a truly absorbing performance.
George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in E-flat Major, is a major masterpiece. True to its title, the ballet is an irresistible display of brilliant allegro dancing, at once vibrant and lyrical, playful and romantic. The choreographer described this piece as “a concentrated essay in the extended classical vocabulary.” Indeed, Allegro Brillante is a distilled version of Balanchine’s aesthetics and a showcase of classical ballet at its most exhilarating.
The opening night Brillante was led out with wonderful brio and dynamism by Maki Onuki and guest artist Marcelo Gomes, the former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Gomes was particularly exemplary in his performance: precise and powerful in his technique and ardent in his partnering. He is in great form and his stage presence and his impeccable manner of dancing made this Allegro Brillante all the more brilliant.
Unlike Brillante, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is not major Balanchine. In fact, when in 1968 the choreographer decided to re-make his original ballet, which was part of the 1936 Rodgers-Hart musical On Your Toes, the critics weren’t particularly enthusiastic. “Those in the know thought that the man who had made Agon, Monumentum/Movements, and Jewels should not be devoting his valuable time to lightweight Broadway material,” wrote Suzanne Farrell in her autobiography, describing Slaughter. “But Balanchine had time for everything, including pure fun.”
And pure fun it is. A gangster thriller, a side-splitting comedy and a dance extravaganza all rolled in one, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, with its hilarious plot and an impressive tap number, is a showstopper in its own right.
The Washington Ballet’s veteran, Sona Kharatian, dancing the role of Striptease Girl (this role was originated by Farrell), brought to her character a vampish appeal and glamour. Whether she was tossing her long hair, kicking those killer legs or arching her sensual back, she knew how to seduce. Hers was an atypical interpretation of the role (the Striptease Girl is usually portrayed as an innocent ingénue), but it was a juicy and exciting performance, nevertheless.
Daniel Roberge, with his 5 o’clock shadow and sturdy physique, managed to put a novel spin on the role of the love-stricken Hoofer, giving his hero a thuggish look and a mobster-like attitude. He is not a tap prodigy, yet his final life-saving solo, in which his hero is tapping so hard and for so long because his life depends on it, was as effective as it was utterly funny.
From the supporting cast, Harry Warshaw made for a handsome, impeccably-mannered and suave Gangster; Corey Landolt, as the insufferable dancer Morrosine, was enjoyably jealous and vindictive; and Stephen Nakagawa and Nicholas Cowden danced and acted as Bartenders with admirable skill and comic timing.