Positive and exciting risk taking

'In the Night," "Oui/Non," "The Upper Room"
The Washington Ballet
The Kennedy Center
Eisenhower Theater
October 26, 20006

by Naima Prevots
copyright© 2006 by Naima Prevots

Positive and exciting risk taking marked the evening’s performance of The Washington Ballet. The company achieved new dimensions of maturity and excellence as it tackled the demanding nuances of Jerome Robbins’ In the Night (music: Frederic Chopin), and the driving energies of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (music: Phillip Glass). The program also featured the world premiere of Septime Webre’s oui/non, set to French cabaret songs, sung on stage by vocalist Karen Akers. As the company’s Artistic Director, Webre has in the past created large and spectacular group dances. Although not fully realized choreographically, his new work focuses on couples and intimacy, and shows him taking greater risks with deeper expressive possibilities.

Jerome Robbins created In the Night for New York City Ballet in 1970, and it remains today a stunning example of this choreographer’s superb musicality and exquisite use of the human body. Set to a series of Chopin’s piano nocturnes, each of three couples weave together with quiet strength and profound inter-connections. There is no story, but there is a drama of poetic phrasing and visual clarity. The dialogue between music and dance allows for a conversation that gives insight into both forms, and provokes emotional overtones. Each couple has its own statement to make about two bodies moving together, sharing space and time in their own way, and forming a relationship through strong sculptural definitions. On October 26 the three couples were danced by Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson; Erin Mahony-Du and Runqiao Du; Sona Kharatian and Luis Torres. Not many companies perform the works of Jerome Robbins, and The Washington Ballet is to be commended for adding his work to their repertory. Jeff Edwards, associate artistic director of the company, was responsible for the clear and sensitive staging. This is not an easy ballet to perform, as it demands subtle virtuosity and expressive depth, elements this company has not always explored. All the couples revealed new high levels of performance, but I found Erin Manhony-Du and Runqiao Du particularly compelling.   

Septime Webre chose an interesting group of songs in French for his premiere oui/non, including classics such as La Vie en Rose (lyrics: Edith Piaf), and Ne Me Quitte Pas (lyrics: Jacques Brel). The dancers shared the stage with well known cabaret singer Karen Akers, bass player Jon Nazdin, and pianist Don Rebic. The songs are poignant, sad, cynical, intimate, and soul searching. The choreography often had no relationship to the music and words, and this created an unfortunate imbalance of busy dancing and heart stopping music. While Webre is to be applauded for moving in a new direction of greater intimacy, he missed the opportunity to catch our attention by not allowing for moments of reflection. Each song had its unique quality and message, but in the end, all the movement looked the same, with a series of lifts and turns that became repetitious and not connected to the music. Akers is an experienced and dramatic vocalist, but her efforts were not matched in the choreography. The stage was dominated by a backdrop with an image of a somewhat ambiguous strong dark figure overlooking the proceedings, designed by Elizabeth Peyton. Unfortunately, there were times when this image overpowered the dancing, as did the red costumed presence of Akers. Less is more can be a cliché, but it applies to this piece. I found dancer Jason Hartley particularly striking in his attempt to capture the emotional drama of the songs. The remainder of the cast consisted of Laura Urgelles, Runqiao Du, Brianne Bland, Jonathan Jordan, Jared Nelson, Erin Mahony-Du, Morgann Rose, Luis Torres, and Elizabeth Gaither, and there were also moments where they were able to capture the essential qualities of the music and lyrics.

When Twyla Tharp is good, she is very, very good. In the Upper Room, with a commissioned score by Phillip Glass, premiered in 1986, and has become one of her signature pieces. As staged by Stacy Caddell, the entire Washington Ballet company performed beautifully, and delivered a powerful rendition of a whirlwind piece. The choreography is brilliant, with inventive dance phrases which demand stamina, technical brilliance, and sensitive musicality. Tharp is a master craftsman, and she constructs demanding material which includes components of different genres: ballet, modern, street dance. There is no mistaking the originality of her composite, as the dancers isolate different body parts, move with complex foot patterns, execute incredible turns and extensions, and create spatial configurations that astound and delight the eye. Her work goes beyond craftsmanship, as she also knows how to create atmosphere, drama, and visual excitement. The images are fresh and lasting, and the dance provokes wonder at the way we see bodies and space in new ways.

Tharp forms a partnership with Glass’ music in extraordinary ways, as the movement phrases go under, in and around the sounds. We hear the score with fresh insight, as dance and music empower each other and feed our imaginations. A great deal has been said and written about the fact that Tharp choreographed the piece with some dancers in pointe shoes and others in flat sneaker type shoes. These cohorts also have different costumes and movement themes. The pointe group is more reminiscent of ballet tradition, and the sneakers group has a modern emphasis on giving in to gravity, off center turns, and various body isolations and accents. This is not a new device for Tharp, and she enjoys challenging standard conceptions of what goes where, and which is what, and combining components from all traditions in any particular sequence.

In the Upper Room is non-stop virtuoso dancing, heavy duty performance projection, and demanding group and solo work. This piece demands no less than every bone and muscle in the body to be aware and active, and that the ears and eyes of each performer be totally tuned in to everything and anything. The entire company shone, and all were certainly supremely challenged. The scenic design by Santo Loquasto includes marvelous clouds of fog through which the dancers appear and disappear. The costume design by Norma Kamali adds to the sharp images, as the black and white striped costumes mix with the tutu-like skirts, and the red toe shoes are mixed with red tops. Add Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, and you have huge swirls of activity with many shadings of light and dark.

The Washington Ballet has taken a bold and impressive move forward, as it has successfully taken on new challenges. Septime Webre is to be complimented on the daring and brilliant repertory choices, the wide range of technical and performance components he has addressed, and the new cohesiveness the company exhibits.
The Washington Ballet is making an important contribution to the arts in the nation’s capitol, and it is a valuable contemporary dance company. Risk taking can be an empty activity, if there is no goal as the end line. Webre knew where he was heading when he took the risks, and he achieved the goal of creating a memorable evening of dance. This same program was performed five times: October 25-29, 2006.    

Elizabeth Gaither in Septime Webre's "Oui/Non." Photo by Steve Vaccariello.
Front page photo (from Tharp's "In the Upper Room") also by Steve Vaccariello. 

Volume 4, No. 39
November 6, 2006

copyright ©2006 Naima Prevots



©2006 DanceView