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Czech National Theater Ballet

'D.M.J. 1953-1977,' 'Petite Mort' and 'Sinfonietta'

by Carmel Morgan

April 25, 2009 -- Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC

Being a resident of Washington, DC has its perks.  One of them is the abundance of opportunities to experience cultures from around the globe.  For a dance enthusiast, residing in DC is a special treat because it affords exposure to dancers and dance companies one might not otherwise be able to see.  Case in point was a special spring performance of the Czech National Theater Ballet from Prague.  The Embassy of the Czech Republic presented the dance program as part of a series called “CZ in DC” in partnership with DC’s modern dance troupe CityDance Ensemble and the Washington Performing Arts society, two of the leading arts organizations in the Nation’s capital.

A lot of dance fans are surely familiar with the choreography of Czech-born Jiri Kylian, the former Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater, who is greatly admired for his innovative work.  Had the Czech National Theater Ballet not performed a Kylian piece, it would have been a tremendous disappointment.  The company, however, performed two Kylian works, “Petite Mort” and “Sinfonietta.”     

“Petite Mort,” a seventeen-minute work to sections of two popular Mozart piano concertos (Piano Concerto in A Major - Adagio and Piano Concerto in C Major - Andante), sparkled with unexpected humor.  The piece was created in 1991 for the Salzburg Festival on the second centenary of Mozart’s death, and according to the program notes the title of the work takes its name from a term used to mean “orgasm” in both French and Arabic.  Indeed, the work obviously built on sexual tension and release.  In the beginning, thunder rumbled.  Men with arms extended swooshed long thin swords, which sliced through the silence.  Their pointed instruments whipped and spun through the air.    

As the men ran pulling billowy black drapery – a sheet of midnight darkness – they unveiled the women, who wore sexy corset-like bodices.  There was no denying the sexual metaphors as the men’s fencing foils passed between the legs of the ladies and glided along their bodies.  The women later appeared in absurdly huge black dresses.  In a humorous interlude, the dancers slid across the stage in their unwieldy Victorian-era gowns.  Only gradually did one realize that their large skirts were actually separate forms on wheels.  When the shells of the dresses shot out from the wings without their owners at the end of the piece, it reminded one of caterpillars who have shed their skin.  What fun!

Kylian’s 1978 ballet “Sinfonietta” closed the program.  It’s an ode to all things Czech, and, in particular, it’s a tribute to renowned Czech composer Leos Janacek, whose music accompanies the work.  “Sinfonietta” burst with Czech spirit throughout.  Dancers leapt with their arms wide open as if to embrace the past and present.  One could see elements of folk dance combined with more traditional ballet movement and also modern dance.  One moment the dancers were spritely ballerinas engaging in energetic jumps and partnering, and the next moment the women, on their backs, stretched their legs toward the sky or were carried upside down.  The work conjured a sweeping landscape and gave a feeling of a dreamy journey.  There seemed to be both a salute to the old and a joyous heralding of the new in the music’s bright brass sounds and the dance’s powerful sense of self-assurance.    

In addition to Kylian’s choreography, the company performed “D.M.J. 1953-1977,” an award-winning work by Petr Zuska, Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet Theater.  The title, explained the program notes, refers to the initials of three famous Czech composers – Antonin Dvorak, Bohuslav Martinu, and Janacek.  In Zuska’s tribute, music from all three composers is used – Dvorak’s Largo from Symphony No. 9 in E Minor “From the New World,” Martinu’s second part of Symphony No. 3, and Janacek’s “The Overgrown Path.”  If that sounds a bit ambitious and frenetic to you, you’d be right. 

Blood-red roses and dark graves dominated “D.M.J.”  Rectangular boxes cleverly served alternately as headstones, benches, monuments, and more.  Dancers vaulted over the boxes, rested atop them, leaned into them, tilted them, hid among them, moved them into various formations, and toppled them like dominoes, all while lamenting death.  Clothed in ghostly white, the dancers moved simply and mournfully like doves departing a funeral.  The work, an intense and lyrical meditation on grief, emitted picture-perfect prettiness at times.  Yet here, as during the rest of the evening, the dancers didn’t quite get it right.  Their timing and precision were consistently off. 

Nonetheless the Czech dancers did do a good job of inviting and keeping the audience’s gaze, and they did an especially good job at expressing national pride.

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