Violin Concerto," "There Where She Loved," and "The
Rite of Spring"
Art does not happen in a void. Why? Because people and their personalities aren’t products of a void either. Trey McIntyre’s new “Rite of Spring” for the Washington Ballet runs into problems precisely because the ballet as a whole cannot escape its historical context, while its characters do not spring from the narrative’s context in a plausible manner. Despite the creation of intricate, creative movement and excellent performances from the company’s dancers, the ballet winds up posing many more questions than it can answer—the sort of situation that leads to the kinds of conversations that overheard on the Kennedy Center shuttle afterwards, where audience members described as “interesting,” “wacky,” and “confusing.”
In a post-performance talk Friday, when asked what relationship his version of “Rite of Spring” has to the many subsequent versions, McIntyre said, “None.” While I can sympathize with an artist’s desire to divorce their creation from others’, with a ballet like “Rite of Spring,” with its long, complicated place in dance history, any version exists in conversation with its previous manifestations. So McIntyre’s version begs questions on its own and in relationship to other “Rites,” particularly because, despite his protestations, he evokes similar confrontations to those earlier ballets, particularly the theme of how a community dominates an individual. Though, interestingly, McIntyre does allow his individual to win (sort of). Also, Stravinsky’s music—so powerful, so well-known—makes McIntyre’s version resonate explosively with other “Rites.” Perhaps a different orchestration, as Shen Wei chose several years ago with the version “Rite” played solely on the piano, might have divorced the ballet from others.
McIntyre moves “Rite” into a postmodern ballroom setting. A stark white set providing ample screens for fiery projections the dancers’ shadows. (Both set and lighting were designed by Nicholas Phillips.) The ballet begins as “The Hostess” a young woman danced well by Laura Urgelles (who showed incredible range all night long Friday in every ballet) heaves with anxiety at the thought of attending the ball at which her mother will announce her engagement. Comforted by her assistant, the diminutive and sweet Brianne Bland, Urgelles manages to don her gown and prepare, with a little help from hastily gulped pills. Gowns, designed by Vandal figure prominently into the rest of the ballet. Urgelles and all of the ball’s female guests wear velvet tops that balloon into a mountain of satin fabric, extended at the back like a giant bustle, split and lifted at the front like a set of curtains. When the women dance, the gowns fly. About sixty percent of the time, the effect intrigues. The rest of the time, it obscures the women’s’ legs, especially unfortunate since McIntyre’s choreography relies on curvy leg gestures. The gowns look neat, different—even beautiful at times--but what’s their point?
The narrative suffers under a similar burden. Urgelles’s mother played by tall, powerful Erin Mahoney, introduces the fiancée, the oversexed Brian Corman who devours first the daughter, then, at Mahoney’s invitation, the mother. The party guests dance before and after Corman’s entrance, the corps looking very mature and adult in their movement, who looked so young earlier in the evening in Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” whip their arms through McIntyre’s choreography with flair. The relationship between the mother and the ballroom guests, who become increasingly malicious as the ballet continues, is never clear. Is she the group’s leader? The epitome of their evil, strangling effect on the Hostess? It becomes a bit of a chicken/egg quandry? Does the community create the mother or does the mother create the community?
The ballroom scene closes, Urgelles running into the arms of her assistant, and, after a lengthy duet, danced beautifully by both women, their lips meet in a kiss, in what I sincerely hope was not the moment marketed as “unsuitable for children.” While the relationship between the two women seems sweet and their performances make it such, Bland carefully caressing Urgelles’s face. The choreography itself does not really create their relationship. Bland’s phrases do not change in style or tempo in the course of the ballet. Also, she gets several movements that also appear in the choreography for the fiancée. The primary one, a quasi pas de chat with arms stretched forward and hands limp, the legs bent in a second position, evokes animalistic images. The fiancée, happy to ravage anything in sight, is an animal, but the assistant should be his foil, not his mirror image. Only in the choreography for Mahoney does McIntyre succeed in making the movement develop a character. She battements her legs and ensnares the other dancers in her arms with sinister aplomb.
Mahoney interrupts the women’s kiss, now pushing the fiancée on her daughter with great vigor. Corman returns, this time in only a dance belt, finally leaping atop Urgelles in a sexy moment of rape. Rape shouldn’t look sexy. This scene overflows with unanswered questions: Why does Corman strip a layer from Mahoney’s skirt to wear around his waist like a bad wrap skirt, flaunting his almost nakedness beneath it? Why is the mother so intent on pushing the fiancée on her daughter when so badly wants him herself.
Finally, the hostess, overcome and distraught, takes the plot into her own hands or, rather, she takes her mother into her own hands, strangling Mahoney as the music ends. But here is where my question about the relationship between mother and community reappears. The corps stands behind them in black Zorro-like masks. Has the Hostess won? Will she be able to live happily ever after with her assistant or will a new evil matriarch rise from the community? And where did the fiancée go? Does the rape satisfy him and he just disappears? The ballet’s over, but the questions continue to mount.
That’s not the case with Christopher Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved.” Wheeldon’s ballet is neatly packaged, clearly the story of a never-ending series of loves between men and women to music by Frederic Chopin and Kurt Weill. The ballet winds through the full gamut of love affairs from the womanizing “Surabaya-Johnny” danced convincingly by Maki Onuki, Sona Kharatian, Sara Ivan and Brian Corman to the playful, young love between Brianne Bland and Jonathan Jordan. In this duet and in the later solo to Chopin’s “There Where She Loves,” Bland defies her name, moving across the stage and alighting on Jordan’s heart like spring’s first butterfly. In the ballet's closer, Weill’s, “Jen e t’aime pas,” Mahoney again proves she may be the company’s most mature ballerina. In one lift, Chip Coleman rests on his back, holding Mahoney above him, her body arching and her arms reaching out towards the audience. The reach seems to come from deep within her, from where she pulls her entire character for the dark duet. Complicated lifts executed with lyricism are becoming a Wheeldon trademark; of “There Where She Loved’s” many duets, Mahoney and Coleman come closest to conveying the choreography’s smoothness. Soprano Dorothy Kingston, mezzo soprano Shelley Waite and pianist Margarita Gramaticova provide the live music, adding to the emotional range embodied in Wheeldon, Weill and Chopin.
The program opened with Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” the young corps led by Laura Urgelles, Jonathan Jordan, Maki Onuki and Runqiao Du. Right now, the company is a bit depleted due to injuries and a death in one of the dancer’s families, and in “Stravinsky” the inexperience showed. While the corps held together well, they looked young, lacking the personal maturity to stretch their limbs into the long, snaky lines demanded by the ballet. But Webre should be commended for challenging them with the ballet; they could grow into it. Among the leads, Jordan seems to have developed his dancing as of late. Ever the jester character in so much of Washington Ballet’s work, in “Stravinsky” Jordan moved with authority and speed. Onuki is a rising star among the company, attacking Aria II with ferocity. Urgelles also danced well, especially given how much more dancing awaited her in the rest of the program.