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Washington Ballet

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The Washington Ballet did a ballet evening last night! What a nice surprise smile.gif

The program was "Concerto Barocco," "Tchaikovsky pas de deux," "Pillar of Fire" (Tudor), and "Esplanade" (Taylor). Well, 75% ballet night.

I thought the "Pillar of Fire" was excellent. This is a ballet I honor but have never loved. I know Sallie Wilson is supposed to be the world's greatest Hagar, but I was never moved by her, and the last performances I've seen of this work at ABT seemed exaggerated on the one hand -- Hagar has cramps (contractions) so vividly that the choreography seemed reduced to them--I thought of Midor as an appropriate sponsor--the Man strokes his thighs so hard you think he'll wear through the cloth, but is is otherwise palid. The last time I saw it, with Kathleen Moore, a dancer I revere, I thought it really had past its shelf-life and was too dated to live. There are times that I love being wrong.

Somehow, Washington Ballet's revival (by Wilson) felt to me as though the whole cast had been dropped into the world of 1940s B movies and were right at home. I thought McKerrow was wonderful. She had been an extremely promising dramatic dancer as a teenager (I remember her pulling off playing a 35-year-old woman looking back, with regret, on a lost love when she was 16) but really hasn't had the chance to do much along that line at ABT, once the home of American dramatic ballet. She also danced it beautifully, and it was fascinating to me to watch the choreography. This isn't just expressionistic generalized movement, but a use of the academic vocabulary to tell a contemporary story (yes, it's in costume of the late 19th century, the time of the music, but it was very much of the Freudian Forties). The Man From the House Opposite could have used several 100 watts more electricity, but the two sisters and the Friend were fine, I thought -- as was the company.

The rest I felt was more mixed. The company used to do "Concerto Barocco" better. They often looked studentish, but students who could expect to graduate into the work. Last night, the dancing was rough -- not at all bad, but not celestial. I thought Erin Mahoney, as the second ballerina, was quite good. I've never seen her in a classical piece; she's always in high energy, usually underclad, mode in the rest of the repertory. I liked Michele Jimenez very much in "Tchai pas," but the man -- no jump, no turn out, no line. A for effort and a nice smile, but....

As for "Esplanade," I saw that its first season, I think it's one of the greatest dances ever made, and I bled a little every time one of the original Taylor dancers left because the work changed. It was made on such specific bodies and personalities: Carolyn Adams' extraordinary lightness, Ruth Andrien's ferocity, Bettie DeJong's (as the mysterious Woman in Pants) stiffness, which made her sobbing unbearable to watch...I still see their ghosts every time I watch the dance. Aside from that, I don't think ballet dancers can do this work. They don't have the weight for it, for one thing, and they don't make the walking-running-skipping look natural. It looks like Dancing -- the ballet style of presentation is so different from Taylor's, where you relate to the audience pleasantly, but never so directly. Also, while in Concerto Barocco, you should have a corps of clones -- at least stylistically -- in Esplanade, Taylor "paints" with bodies; it gives his dances their texture. Lila York, 4 foot 10 (?) and shaped like a little pear, and Bettie DeJong, nearly a foot taller, were the two extremes in this dance about being left out (they're the ones who never pair). When everyone is nearly the same height, the ballet loses a lot.

I'm being more negative than I felt while watching it. It was a very pleasant evening, much better than the trapeze and spangles night this time last year, and I would urge anyone in the area who has ever been curious about "Pillar of Fire" to run down.

Audience reaction was curious. They liked Barocco, but didn't seem to love it. There was a hushed expectancy before Tchaikovsky pas de deux -- as though they were expecting Corsaire -- and nice applause, though no whooppin' and ahollerin', like you'd get for a new Dwight Rhoden opus. I don't think they liked "Pillar," but at least nobody laughed. I thought they did like "Esplanade," and laughed, appreciatively, at some of the "games," but there wasn't sustained applause at the end. That's the view from the orchestra. Perhaps the balcony went wild and I missed it.

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I was trying to be kind, mbjerk smile.gif It wasn't a full orchestra, I think? More a mini-orchestra. It seemed to me the conductor was ignoring the dancers. The Bach sounded exactly the same for Barocco as it did for Esplanade!

What did you think of Pillar? (Or the rest of the program, of course.) There are about ten Washingtonians on the board -- didn't anyone else go?

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It was a chamber string orchestra, not the Kennedy Center players, but a suburban outfit. Tchaikovsky Pas used the piano to replace the winds, horns and tympany - sounded really thin as it was a part of the Swan Lake score at one point.....

Concerto Barocco - I know it too well and see every crack and crevice. Best not to comment.

T pas was fun to see again. The dancers, Jimenez and Nelson, were pleasant and young. I missed the dancers' enjoyment of each other versus playing the audience. This pas for me is a romantic pas with technique thrown away to impress your partner.

Pillar was well rehearsed -very cleanly danced. Amanda Mckerrow and John Garnder added immensely to the company's professionalism. I wished the sister in pink was a bit more teasing and conceited. And had the brothel men had danced with lust versus steps, it would have been more powerful. I like the ballet - watching it is hard for me, but when all is over I have been moved tremendously at a subconscious level.

Here too the orchestra almost ruined the ballet. The second half relies tremendously on the score to set the mood, very cinematic in quality. When the sweet, etheral music sounds like a cat in heat, that quality gets lost.

Esplanade was great - here the company got to do what it does best, move with unbridled energy in steps that do not ask for rigor of classical or neo-classical technique. And the orchestra played the Bach pieces better the second time through! The company was musical, related to each other, and literally threw themselves into the dance.

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I really enjoyed Saturday evening's performance. That night, the orchestra was pretty good for Concerto Barocco but then completely fell apart for Esplanade. Go figure. (I'm assuming this wasn't the same performance that mbjerk was talking about.)

I thought the company did really well with Concerto Barocco. Not ragged at all. They actually looked like a classical (or at least neoclassical) ballet company. They looked much better than Dance Theatre of Harlem did a couple years ago, which is the only other company I've seen do this ballet. I don't think allegro is really Erin Mahoney's strong suit, but she was only slightly less effective than Christina Fagundes, whose experience adds polish to every ballet that she performs. As a pair, they were well matched.

Jared Nelson also impressed me in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Usually, he tends to be extremely sloppy (he actually ended up on his rear end in his Nutcracker variation when I saw him in December), but Saturday night he pulled out all the stops and danced cleanly and with more charisma than I thought he had. Maybe he was trying to keep up with the radiant Michele Jimenez. I just adore her, but I have to admit that the 1000-watt smile did get on my nerves. It would have been fine in an opera house, but it was too much for the relatively small Eisenhower.

Like Alexandra, I too was extremely impressed by the company in Pillar of Fire, but especially by Brianne Bland, who completely stole the show as the pretty, spoiled, manipulative little sister. I'd forgotten how wonderful she was in "Our Town" several years back, but her performance here reminded me what a gifted dramatic dancer she can be.

After two performances on Saturday, I think the dancers must have been really exhausted by the time they got to Esplanade. They looked just a tad worn out running around the stage and while the Taylor choreography looked like aerobic fun, it didn't come across as a Great Work.

Overall, I was thrilled with an evening of real ballet and at how well the dancers performed. I hope (fingers crossed) they'll have more programs like this one.

[This message has been edited by The Bard's Ballerina (edited April 02, 2001).]

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That's strange, Bard's Ballerina. I thought it was the other way round! However, I did enjoy the dancing in Concerto Barocco very much. Flowing classical arms with a little more "wrist" than usual, but never a broken or flat line. Just kind of flowery. It was interesting to see the ballet danced with smiles instead of the blank faces of NYCB. I rather liked it during the allegro sections, but it was a bit too much during the largo. While none of the dancers quite had razor-like NYCB pointework, their positions were always clean and precise. And although the corps members weren't all exactly the same height, they danced almost exactly the same, which is almost as good.

I have nothing bad to say about Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Michele Jiminez appears to be technically perfect, without the slightest effort. She looked amazingly happy last night--I smiled just watching her glow. And she is so strong--never wobbles for a milisecond, never misses a pirouette or a balance--but seems so pleasantly surprised every time she hits one smile.gif. Jared Nelson also looked very strong; lovely beats and pirouettes. I didn't find them terribly well-matched in the pas de deux, but as far as I know, their pairing was due to height difficulties among other partners.

I can't really say much about Pillar of Fire. Amanda McKerrow's was amazing, and I thought Brianne Bland was very good, but I don't think I really understood the ballet, and would like to see it several more times before I really form an opinion.

Esplanade was pure fun for the whole company. They all seemed to have a great time with it, even though I'm sure it wasn't very "authentic." It still ended the evening on a positive, happy note--and I was definitely interested to see what Paul Taylor choreographed to Bach's concerto contrasted with Balanchine's choreography.

Did anyone else go to the post-performance discussion?



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I thoroughly enjoyed Washington Ballet's recent 'American Icons' program, which I attended last Wednesday evening, March 28. It was, for me, undoubtedly the most satisfying evening at the Washington Ballet since...well, that 1987 performance in which they first danced 'Esplanade.' This is the sort of well-balanced, quality-choreography program that has been missing from WB's repertoire for so many years. The high expectations that I had beforehand were not dampened by the actual performance which was, in general, on a very high level. Perhaps they lost a bit of that initial 'oomph' in subsequent performances, from what I've been reading? [The Wednesday performance that I attended was officially a 'preview' so most critics went the following evening, Thursday the 29th.]

CONCERTO BAROCCO - Neat, clean dancing from the corps. Fine female soloists, especially the "second lady" Erin Mahoney, who displayed nice high entrechats during the third movement. A couple of reviewers above already noted what was my main qualm about this work: the hee-haw grins on the faces of a couple of corps ladies, which continued through the middle (slow) movement. The huge smile on the first soloist's (Christina Fagundes) visage bothered me less; besides, I am used to Fagundes' ever-present smile from her ABT years. The male soloist, Runquiao Du, showed a bit too much of the 'effort' in lifting the slender-but-tall Fagundes during the second movement; for a moment, I was afraid that he wasn't going to make it!

TCHAI PDD - A delight as a 'whole' but a bit sloppy in details. Again, the 1000-watt smile from Michele Jimenez didn't bother me so much because this is, after all, a show-off, competition-style pdd. Her technique was very strong. Jared Nelson has improved quite a bit since I last saw him; what a natural gift of long line and charisma this lad has!

PILLAR OF FIRE - *The* highlight of the evening for me. I have never thought of Amanda Mckerrow as an actress before...coach Sallie Wilson has certianly done wonders with her. Amanda was simply *spectacular* in both her forceful acting and lovely dancing. I have only seen a couple of Hagars 'live' before (Kathleen Moore and Leslie Browne) and Amanda is way above both, in my estimation. The entire company danced their roles -- big and small - with conviction, although Brianne Bland as the Young Sister was a bit over-the-top (in acting AND make-up, black brows & racoon eyeliner on a blonde?); she looked like a Stepford Wife from where I sat in the middle of the orchestra seats...scarry! I thought that the much-commented-on Runqiao Du (as the 'bad boy' from the House Opposite) was dramatically 'on'....and drama isn't his usual forte.

ESPLANADE - Very good but not quite at the level that I recall from the 1987 performance. All dancers seemed to be holding back a bit during the Wednesday preview. Perhaps they 'let loose' on Thursday and for the remainder of the run in this ballet...yet, from what I read, the corps was stronger in 'my' CONCERTO BAROCCO on Wednesday. Of the four ballets on view, ESPLANADE was the weakest for me, by far...yet acceptable.

Post-performance Talk: It was a treat to see and hear all three stagers, interviewed by WB atistic director Septime Webre. Victoria Simon (for the Balanchines) was concerned about toning-down those smiles in CB. Sallie Wilson (for the Tudor) seems so sweet & quiet to be one of the all-time great ballet actresses on the stage...she talked about Tudor's methods in developing every single character on the stage (no matter how 'small' a role). The gentleman who staged the Paul Taylor work (sorry - forgot his name right now!) received the most interesting audience question. Someone asked him to explain the meaning behind the second movement of 'Esplanade' with the 'tall woman in pants' who dances very little and cries in the end...very different from all other women in the ballet. The male audience member asked, laughingly: "What was THAT all about?" prompting others in the audience to also laugh. The Taylor stager did not answer the question & simply said, "It's up to everyone's own imagination to interpret."

In a nutshell - I LOVED it. Let's have more of this sort of program in the future, Mr. Webre.

- Jeannie Szoradi, Washington, DC

p.s. - The chamber orchestra was quite good on Wednesday, especially in the two Bach works. My only qualms were with the odd arrangement of the Tchai pdd (woodwinds and brass replaced by piano).

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited April 05, 2001).]

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