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Washington Ballet

'The Great Gatsby'

by Heather Desaulniers

February 27, 2010 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

I love watching ballet, but I rarely describe it as fun.  Whether abstract or narrative, many ballets are just not that entertaining, focused instead on the complex, obscure and sometimes somber.  These serious undertones and overtones can be a bit of a downer.  Art should challenge us, but is it too much to ask for there to be some good old-fashioned revelry mixed in alongside the doom and gloom?  In The Washington Ballet's production of Septime Webre's “The Great Gatsby,” I saw firsthand that fun and depth do not have to be mutually exclusive nor in a contentious relationship.  A full-length narrative ballet can actually be fun and thought-provoking at the same time!  Deeper issues were treated with due diligence, without sacrificing amusement or frivolity.  The sets, costumes, live jazz and outstanding vocalists combined with Webre's choreography to create a stylistic sizzle appropriate to this time of luxury and lavishness.  The consequences of extravagance were also well-represented in moments of regret, loss, sorrow, heartache, and infidelity.  These characters and their relationships are scarred and damaged, yet in the midst of that darkness, parties raged on.  Decadence was not only to blame for their reality, but was also an escape from their reality.  

“The Great Gatsby” was a stage full of visual splendor and the choreography was equally opulent, specifically the lush footwork.  With the women, Webre explored the foot's full range of motion, utilizing flatfoot, demi-pointe and pointework.  Daisy's choreography (danced Saturday night by Elizabeth Gaither) had beautiful demi-pointe turns and flatfoot poses in attitude.  In ballet, we are so used to seeing women glued to full pointe that it is easy to forget the elegance that flat and demi-pointe options can provide. 

The men's choreography was infused with more petit allegro sequences than I have seen in a long time.  These intricate, quick phrases skim the floor with small jumps, quick demi-pliés and multiple beats.  When done well, petit allegro is captivating and flashy, very appropriately matched to the story of “The Great Gatsby.”  As Nick, Jonathan Jordan's opening solo was the epitome of debonair charisma, not because of his spectacular big jumps, but because of his detailed batterie (entrechat quartre, assemblé, entrechat trois).  The combination of the down (his plié) and the up (his petit allegro) was sumptuously tactile.  Another marvelous example of petit allegro occurred during one of the many party scenes where four men danced a combination with their hands in their pockets.  I still don't have the words to complement their series of brisées.  This incredibly difficult jump places the body weight forward in space as the back foot beats the other leg in front (all while airborne) and then lands in the back again.  Doing one of these jumps properly is tough, but these guys did half a dozen or more in a row, with no help from their arms.  Wow!

This ballet also confirmed for me that Brooklyn Mack is the most outstanding male dancer in the Washington Ballet.  He has it all - incomparable technique and dramatic strength in character portrayals.  As George Wilson, his Valley of the Ashes dance was amazing, but his final solo after Myrtle's death was transcendent.  It was pure anger, pure fire, pure desperation and pure sadness all manifested in dance.  His choreography was an explosion of all these emotions.

Hopefully as this new ballet continues to develop in the repertory, two issues will be addressed.  First was the character of Jordan Baker.  Jordan was not well-integrated into the ballet.  She was present in most of the scenes, though it was not always clear why she was there.  Yes, we knew she was Daisy's friend and confidant, but even that relationship was not well-established.  The part was danced beautifully by Jade Payette; her performance was not the problem.  At best, the treatment of this character in the ballet was peripheral and her role in the story unclear.  My second issue is nit-picky, but definitely requires mention.  There was one particular group sequence that had the party guests in a wedge formation, and one female dancer was at the point of the wedge, leading in a sense.  This particular dancer was having a great night for balance on Saturday.  With every turn and pose, she was undoubtedly on her leg.  Coming out of each step, she was able to hold her position longer than the rest of the group.  In solo circumstances, this would be a positive thing, but when you are supposed to be in unison with other dancers, indulging in that extra moment is not a good idea.  She was at the very front and at least a half a beat late for the entire variation.  With everyone else being right on time, it just looked messy.

These two small observances certainly do not detract from the wonderful achievement of Webre's “The Great Gatsby.”  His rendition told this story of longing with equal parts drama and jubilance.  New productions all go through a period of growth and change after their premiere, and I look forward to the next iteration of this beautiful ballet.  If for no other reason than reminding me that going to the ballet can be fun.


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