Masters of the Dance

Classic Arts Features   Masters of the Dance
The Kennedy Center's first International Ballet Festival opens March 4.

Ballet lovers, rejoice. In an unprecedented event, dancers from six of the world's greatest ballet companies will perform in the Kennedy Center's first International Ballet Festival, in a spectacular two-week engagement in the Eisenhower Theater, beginning March 4. Smaller than the Opera House, which is closed for renovations, the Eisenhower Theater will provide audiences with a wonderfully intimate experience of landmark ballets.

"Each ballet is closely associated with the company's history," says Charles Reinhart, Artistic Director for Dance at the Kennedy Center. Consequently, we'll see Kirov Ballet in "Kingdom of the Shades" from Marius Petipa's La Bayadère; Bolshoi Ballet in a selection of popular works; the Royal Danish Ballet in August Bournonville's pas de six and the tarantella from Act III of Napoli; Adam Cooper and company, featuring dancers from English National Ballet, in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Sea of Troubles; Miami City Ballet in George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments; and American Ballet Theatre in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free. "These are masterworks," Reinhart says. "Usually festivals offer samplings, a series of pièces d'occasions. This one will have the feeling of a gala but with depth. Instead of light desserts, we'll be serving full, gourmet meals."

In fact, one can trace the history of ballet through the companies and their programs, beginning with Kirov's La Bayadère, choreographed by Petipa to a score by Ludwig Minkus, and first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1877. Highly dramatic, it tells the tragic love story of an Indian temple dancer, Nikiya, and the young warrior Solor, who betrays her. After her death, the repentant Solor dreams of her, in the now famous Act IV, called "Kingdom of the Shades." First performed in the United States by the Kirov in 1961, dance critic Arlene Croce calls it "a ritual, a poem about dancing and memory and time."

Founded in 1776, Bolshoi Ballet is Russia's other great company, with a repertory that features such classics as Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty, and several dramatic one-act ballets. Having survived many changes in government, it first began performing in the West in the 1950s in a series of tours organized by the impresario Sol Hurok. The broad sweeping movements of the Russian school, with its graceful and expressive movement of the entire body, immediately took the world by storm. Few styles of dancing produce such an immediate atmosphere of excitement and passion, and sustain it for extended periods of time.

Even before Petipa began choreographing La Bayadère, August Bournonville was transforming Danish ballet. Born in 1805 in Copenhagen, he first won acclaim as a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet and the Paris Opéra Ballet, where he partnered the legendary Marie Taglioni. But he did his greatest service to ballet after his retirement from dancing in 1830, when he assumed the position of artistic director and choreographer of the Royal Danish Ballet. Strongly influenced by French romantic ballet, he began creating works with a warm and charming atmosphere. Distinct for their beauty and joie de vivre, they had a wide variety of themes, often with a national flavor‹Italian, Flemish, Spanish, Norwegian, and of course, Danish. The magnificent Italian romance Napoli is the all-time favorite.

Bournonville distinguished himself not only as a choreographer but also as one of Denmark's most educated and cultivated men, who wrote poems, travel diaries, theater reviews, and ballet synopses. For him, however, dancing stood apart, as a religion and the most uplifting of all art forms. After his death in 1879, the Royal Danish Ballet carefully conserved his main works, making them the basis of the Danish repertory.

After Russian and Danish ballet, we come to the English and the brilliant choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Beginning his career as a dancer with the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet in 1946, he maintained his strong connection with the company when it became the Royal Ballet in 1956. In 1970 he was appointed director and remained its principal choreographer until his death in 1992. He is considered one of the 20th century's most accomplished choreographers.

The English dance critic Clement Crisp writes, "MacMillan extended the possibilities of ballet, of choreography as psychological probe, of classical academic movement as an expressive language. For him, ballet was an art that could be as mature and adventurous as any form of theatre, and his achievement was choreography that challenged every preconception about what dance could tell of emotion and experience."

Former Royal Ballet principal dancer Adam Cooper, who made a "true star performance" (The Daily Telegraph, London) in Matthew Bourne's reworking of Swan Lake, has assembled a company including dancers from English National Ballet to recognize MacMillan's legacy. In commemoration of the anniversary of the choreographer's death, Cooper will dance the lead in a revival of MacMillan's beloved Sea of Troubles, an impressionistic, Hamlet-esque drama on familial relationships and the troubles that besiege them. While MacMillan's works grace the repertories of many companies, English National Ballet, formerly the London Festival Ballet, has gained a reputation as one of his finest interpreters.

While Petipa, Bournonville, and MacMillan are closely connected with their homelands, George Balanchine bridged and combined the European and American sensibilities, a product of his experience as a young dancer in Russia, his years choreographing for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in France, and his work in British and American musicals in London, Los Angeles, and New York. Once he had co-founded New York City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein in 1948, he had free rein to bring all these elements together.

The Four Temperaments, choreographed in 1946, to a score by Paul Hindemith, stands as one of Balanchine's most resonant masterpieces. Dealing in the most abstract way with the four temperaments‹melancholic (pensive), sanguinic (confident), phlegmatic (impassive), and choleric (angry)‹it dramatically sweeps through every variety of emotion. Edward Villella, Artistic Director of Miami City Ballet, has made it one of his company's signature works. Few of Balanchine's protégés have carried on his tradition with greater success than Villella. A former star of New York City Ballet, he spent his career in dance learning from Balanchine and in recent years has brought all that knowledge to training his own acclaimed troupe.

Last but hardly least, American Ballet Theatre will dance Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, the delightful ballet about three sailors on leave in New York, which he choreographed in 1944 to a score by Leonard Bernstein. An instant hit, it became the basis for the Robbins-Bernstein musical On the Town. "What makes the ballet so interesting," says Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre, "is that Jerry created his first work for our company while he was still a dancer here. But we selected it for the festival because of its Americanness. What a wonderful ballet to bring to an international festival."

Valerie Gladstone is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

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