Celebrating the remarkable breadth and depth of American ballet as never before, the Kennedy Center brings together nine renowned companies, many of which are rare visitors to Washington, for Ballet Across America in the Opera House June 10-15. Through three mixed repertory programs‹each featuring companies from the eastern, middle, and western U.S.‹audiences can immerse themselves in the full range of our nation's magnificent ballet spirit. (See the sidebar on page 14 for schedule.)
"In all corners of the country, spectacular dancers are bringing audiences to their feet," says Meg Kowalski, the Kennedy Center's Director of Ballet Programming. "It is a privilege to bring nine of these great companies to the Kennedy Center for a celebration of ballet across America."
East coast companies include Pennsylvania Ballet, returning to the Center for the first time since 2000 to perform Jerome Robbins's In the Night. Set to Chopin's nocturnes, solo piano pieces to be played at night, the work explores three stages of a love relationship‹tender young love, a mature and balanced love, and fiery passion‹in three extended pas de deux. The New York Times calls it "wonderfully romantic." Artistic Director Roy Kaiser says, "I'm a big fan of Robbins so we've been adding his works over the past few years to our repertoire. In many ways, In the Night is my favorite: just pure movement, visualizing the music. It requires strong and specific personalities from the dancers who are performing it and I thought it would be a wonderful way to show off the company."
D.C.'s own The Washington Ballet performs Nine Sinatra Songs, a swanky showpiece by Twyla Tharp, with songs by Ol' Blue Eyes. The Washington Post lauds its "many pleasures," while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer declares it a "masterpiece of Americana." Led by Artistic Director Septime Webre, the company first performed it in 2005. "Twyla Tharp is one of the high priestesses of American dance" says Webre, "and Nine Sinatra Songs demonstrates her trademark combination of really inventive movement, American popular culture, and classical ideals. It's a fantastic opportunity for the artists of the Washington Ballet to display their individual personalities and personal strengths on stage."
Boston Ballet stages Brake the Eyes, a breathtaking new work by their Choreographer-in-Residence Jorma Elo set to synthesized score of Mozart. With a title that plays on "break the ice," Brake features Elo's trademark use of limbs that windmill, twist, and coil. The company handles the off-kilter lifts and carries with "terrific commitment and panache" (The Boston Globe). Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen describes it as an "extremely intriguing contemporary work that utilizes ballet dancers and their balletic skills and is very technical and theatrical. It's stunning."
From America's heartland comes Kansas City Ballet with its late founder Todd Bolender's The Still Point, set to excerpts from Debussy's String Quartet in G minor. Dubbed "a masterpiece" by the New York Times, Bolender's choreographic short story concerns a young woman who feels rejected until a young man offers her love and understanding. The Still Point "occupies a very special place in Kansas City Ballet's heart," says current Artistic Director Bill Whitener, "and it is perhaps one of the best-known Bolender ballets."
Chicago's The Joffrey Ballet performs Antony Tudor's Lilac Garden, "a ballet classic" (The New York Times). Set to the deeply romantic Pome for violin and orchestra by Ernest Chausson, it is a glorious Victorian melodrama of subtle intrigue and secret love affairs. The Joffrey celebrated an Antony Tudor Centennial in February at their home theater. "I think that Lilac Garden is the most well-known of the Tudor works," says new Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley C. Wheater, who took the helm in September 2007, "and I have to say that the company is dancing it so well."
Houston Ballet brings Artistic Director Stanton Welch's Velocity, which has been described as a "hyperkinetic tutu extravaganza" set to music by American composer Michael Torke. The Houston Chronicle calls it "minimalist eye candy" that is "memorably strong, fast, and cool." Welch decided to bring Velocity because "it really shows off not just our classical sensibilities, but also the contemporary style. It's a rather nice piece to showcase the company."
Arriving from beyond the Rocky Mountains is Salt Lake City's Ballet West performing Balanchine's Serenade to music by Tchaikovsky. Originating as a lesson in stage technique, this legendary work was the first ballet Balanchine created in America. "We loved the idea of bringing Serenade and thought it'd be rather fitting to open Ballet Across America with it," says Artistic Director Adam Sklute. "It's a lovely showpiece for so many of our dancers and we're thrilled to be able to present it."
Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet stages Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato's hauntingly beautiful JardÐ Tancat. Based on Catalonian folk tales collected and passionately sung by Maria del Mar Bonet, this "quiet dance of loss and melancholy, performed barefoot and earthbound" (The Seattle Times) portrays in song and dance the poignant story of a people enduring with great spirit in the face of hardship. "There's something about his choreography that I just find fascinating," says Artistic Director Peter Boal, who was a principal dancer with Kennedy Center's own The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. "He's able to weave a spell and cast it over the audience. What amazes me is that JardÐ Tancat was the first piece he ever made and it's such a strong, well-crafted piece that obviously has aged beautifully. It seemed like the right piece to bring to the Kennedy Center."
Oregon Ballet Theatre brings Christopher Wheeldon's RUSH danced to Martinu's Sinfonietta La Jolla. A very demanding, technical work in three movements, it tests the athletic abilities of the dancers. The audience response following the work's world premiere in Edinburgh in 2003 prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to say that "the cheers were only natural." When deciding what work to bring to the Center, Artistic Director Christopher Stowell thought of his good friend Wheeldon. "I wanted something energetic, uplifting, and challenging to the company, but about dance more than anything else."
Over one week, patrons can journey from coast to coast, from 20th century masters Tudor, Balanchine, and Robbins to today's rising choreographers like Wheeldon and Elo, experiencing ballet as danced by nine of America's great companies.
In Ballet American-Style, members of the companies presented in Ballet Across America participate in a panel discussion on June 14, providing an inside look at the unique styles that make these companies great.
Jeremy D. Birch is the writer/editor for Kennedy Center News.