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The Washington Ballet: 'pastFORWARD'

'Rubies,' 'Wunderland,' 'Juanita y Alicia'

by Carmel Morgan

May 14, 2009 -- Harman Center for the Arts, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC

The final production of the Washington Ballet’s 2008-2009 season, a performance of three mixed works titled “past FORWARD,” brought the company’s strengths to the forefront. Balanchine’s “Rubies,” an excerpt from his “Jewels,” provided the past in the program, while the world premiere of Edwaard Liang’s “Wunderland” clearly gave the show its forward motion.

Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet’s artistic director, strives to give his dancers breadth by challenging them with the best of classical ballet and also by exposing them to new choreographic talents with contemporary flair. With “Rubies,” Webre gave his dancers the invaluable gift of coaching time with Edward Villela and Patricia McBride, who years ago wowed audiences as original cast members. No doubt “Rubies” sparkled a little more brightly with their help. The dancers, however, seemed as if they could have used another week or two of rehearsal to refine their precision and crispness. When the dancers pranced like horses trotting in a parade, their bodies jiggled as they ran. More control was required to execute “Rubies” well.   

Nonetheless, “Rubies” provoked a lot of oohs and aahs from the audience. The dancers’ vivid red costumes stood out against the velvety black backdrop splattered like a starry night sky with pinpricks of crimson light. Maki Onuki and Jonathan Jordan, a petite pair, danced together with spritely spirit. Like children at play, they moved with effervescent springiness. Onuki’s slightness contrasted with Sona Kharatian’s more powerful presence. Kharatian channeled royalty. As she stood firm, male dancers manipulated her arms and feet. While Onuki’s face glowed and she showed off gorgeous extensions, she appeared too soft and tentative for her role. Kharatian came across as quite the opposite – fierce, if not a tad angry. Jordan perhaps best captured the work’s blend of seriousness and fun.  

The real gem of the night turned out to be Liang’s “Wunderland.” This new work, set to music by Philip Glass, offered a lot of interesting movement. To begin, the curtain lifted to reveal a quintet of dancers with outstretched arms and legs like the appendages of a spider. Five women crouched in wide second position, en pointe, with their long arms hovering away from their sides, made lovely and unusual square shapes with their bodies. The women’s costumes, again in a deep red, resembled pin-up girl bathing suits, all with different plunging necklines and low backs. The men wore a solid nude color from head to toe. There was something both athletic and delicate about “Wunderland.” Not infrequently, dancers placed one hand on the floor, like football players. Their bent legs formed odd but pretty lines that recalled some of the fascinating lines in “Rubies.” The women also crossed the stage in lovely bourées and turns, interrupting the work’s crooked-limbed lines with moments of more traditional ethereal beauty.  

“Wunderland” evoked a myriad of feelings, but utmost, maybe, was longing. Jared Nelson stood apart from the rest of the males in the “Wunderland” cast. His dancing perfectly paralleled the quiet tension of the pulsing strings in Glass’s music. Nelson moved slowly, patiently, and incredibly passionately, using every second of the choreography to express volumes of emotion. The partnering in “Wunderland,” in particular, dazzled. In unique lifts, the women’s knees sailed to their chins, coming to an almost fetal pose. The men carved the air in gentle arcs with the women in their arms. Women literally wrapped themselves around the men in couplings that could have been inspired by contact improvisation.   

The lighting design, by Jeff Bruckerhoff, making his Washington Ballet debut, enhanced the work without overpowering it. Although the colors changed from blue to desert rose to purplish gray to peachy gold, the transitions did not distract in any way from the dancing. When snow began to pour down and lightly smack the stage, the magic simply heightened. The snow could have been an annoying and unnecessary prop, but in “Wunderland” the snow actually added to the choreography. Like the title suggests, “Wunderland” became a winter wonderland, and the dancers became figures in a snowglobe. Bruckerhoff’s lighting superbly highlighted the falling precipitation, giving the snow a yellow-greenish hue that made it appear like lighting bugs zipping through space. The lighting also perfectly showed the nautilus shell swirls of snow made by the dancers’ feet.

The audience went completely wild for “Wunderland,” and Liang took the stage for a bow looking very pleased. One audience member whispered that she could hardly breathe the entire time, and I concur that “Wunderland” was totally intriguing. I’ll be eagerly looking forward to more new works from Liang.

The Washington Ballet closed its “past FORWARD” program with Webre’s handsome “Juanita y Alicia,” which draws upon Webre’s experiences growing up in Cuba. The highlight of “Juanita y Alicia” was not the dancing but the live Cuban music performed by Sin Miedo. Although the band was cramped in a corner, their sound boomed forth, and one couldn’t help but be swayed by the rhythms. Both the band and the dancers wore white. The set design by Holly Highfill, a backdrop consisting of a huge, highly-stylized family portrait, contributed to the personal nature of the work.

While details of the family relationships in the piece remained fuzzy and the story was rather incoherent, the dancing was light and enjoyable. The summer heat, the carefree games of childhood, the flirty dance parties, and the warmth of the love of the family’s matriarchs all vividly came to life. Overall, however, “Juanita y Alicia” left a vacancy in the heart due to a performance that demonstrated more surface joys than depth.

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