“American ballet to me is this incredible, beautiful melting pot of different techniques and interpretations of this language that is dance”- Misty Copland. Some of the best examples of this melting pot were on display to fantastic effect at the Kennedy Center Opera House during this past week’s dynamic “Ballet Across America,” curated by Copeland and Justin Peck.
Many laymen to the world of ballet are only familiar with the great classics such as “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker,” etc. To a large extent, that is how this reviewer has been familiar with ballet, never having many opportunities or interest in seeing more contemporary productions. Having the opportunity to see the magnificent “Ballet Across America” has shown me how short sighted I have been in only seeking out the most traditional of ballets and has thrown my eyes open wide to the amazing achievements and innovation of so many diverse dance companies across America. I am unsure if the journey that I took on Friday evening was the reason behind the conception of “Ballet Across America,” but it most definitely made a huge impact on me and the way I will see ballet from now on. And I can’t help but think that I wasn’t the only audience member so affected.
I sincerely hope that The Kennedy Center knows the impact that bringing diverse and exemplary performances like this have on the people…
The week-long ballet event consisted of several different performances; a special opening night performance that included the world premiere of a short film and a ballet both commissioned by the Kennedy Center for their 2016-17 season. It also featured one performance each from the programs that had been curated by Misty Copeland and Justin Peck. For those who don’t know, Copeland is a ballet prodigy who became the first female African-American principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre and Justin Peck is a prolific new voice in ballet and is the resident choreographer, as well as a soloist, with the New York City Ballet. These two giants in their field combed the country for companies performing innovative and groundbreaking ballet and each chose three to come to Washington D.C. and exhibit.
Unfortunately, I was not able to see Peck’s contribution, but if it was even a third as entertaining and breathtaking as Copeland’s, it would be a triumph. Both performances started with “Now More than Ever,” an original short film commissioned by the Kennedy Center. It featured several dancers performing across the historic halls and spaces of this living memorial to the 35th president of the United States. And how fitting: Kennedy once said, “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.”
The first ballet of the evening was from the Nashville Ballet (Paul Vasterling, Artistic Director.) The avant-garde piece was set to “Concerto,” the first classical orchestral composition from piano-rock juggernaut Ben Folds. Folds, who was on hand to play the piano for this ballet at the opening night celebration on Monday, included this piece on the collaborative album that he produced with progressive chamber group yMusic (click here to sample a song from the album “So There;” I had the opportunity to see them perform the album almost a year ago at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, and it is excellent.)
The opening movement featured a playful Judson Veach and company in black, very architectural costumes. The dancers shared the stage with the grand piano, highlighting Folds’ primary instrument. While the choreography was definitely ballet, it also had an almost jazz-like element to it. It was also quite sensual, with the dancers doing a lot of twisting around each other’s bodies in close proximity. The first movement was quite buoyant and joyful. The second movement was dominated by a transfixing pas de tois, featuring the enchanting Kayla Rowser with Owen Thorne and Jon Upleger. These three appeared in colorful costumes (the men in green and Rowser in light blue) making a contrast to their compatriots, still in stark black. The final movement was fast and frenetic- the dancers’ movements almost violent with accompaniment blasts from tympani drums and xylophone. The piece concluded with an impressive sequence where the entire company danced in perfect synchronicity. Overall a striking performance from an impressive group of dancers.
The next ballet came courtesy of The Black Iris Project (Jeremy McQueen, Artistic Director and Choreographer.) They undertook “Madiba,” a ballet based on the complicated and historic life of South African leader and apartheid opponent Nelson Mandela. The ballet followed Mandela from his birth until his triumphant election as South Africa’s leader. Right from the start, the visual aspect of the ballet was very unique. Instead of traditional tights and costumes, most of the dancers wore real clothes – some traditional African garb, others more western looking clothes of what looked like the 1940’s-50’s. Also true to the dark history of apartheid, the dancers were separated by their skin color, with the youthful students and protesters being black and the soldiers that harassed them being white. While I wouldn’t have immediately thought of ballet as the best medium to represent Mandela’s story, it quickly became apparent that the strong feelings that ran through the story were incredibly moving and effective in movement. Andile Ndlovu delivered a stunning performance as Mandela; the dance he performed when Mandela was first put in jail, on a bare stage with just an overhead spotlight and some fog, was perhaps the most visceral and real representation of despair that this reviewer has seen. Daphne M. Lee also turned in a powerful performance as Winnie Mandela. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this ballet was how nuanced and subtle it was. Never once did it hit you over the head with the events of Mandela’s life- it deftly took you on a journey. This ballet is both a high artistic achievement and beautiful historical representation of one of the world’s most inspiring leaders.
Finally, the evening was concluded with the ballet “Star Dust,” presented by Detroit’s Complexions Contemporary Ballet (Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, Co-Artistic Directors.) When I saw that the ballet was set to 9 of David Bowie’s songs, I was immediately concerned, as I often feel that implementing popular music into professional dance can be used as a cheat to connect with the audience, rather than building that connection organically. However, I had no need to fear as I was about to watch one of the best performances I had ever witnessed, whether ballet or otherwise. Originally performed in May of 2016, this piece seems to be the best kind of tribute to the too soon lost pop icon. It is actually difficult to begin describing the ballet; it is so unique and impressive. The costumes were brightly colored and dynamic, with the dancers sporting 70’s Bowie’s signature face paint and glitter. There was a primary dancer for each song, who not only took the dancing lead, they also would lip sync along with the song. The song choices spanned from “Changes” and “Life on Mars” from the Hunky Dory album (1971) to “Lazarus” from Blackstar (2016.)
It would be impossible to detail all of the highlights of this ballet in this brief review, but the two highlights for this reviewer were “Life on Mars” and the transition from “Heroes” to “Modern Love.” “Life on Mars” featured Greg Blackmon, who delivered an inspiring performance and something that I had never seen before. He performed this piece on pointe. For those readers that are unfamiliar, men’s feet and center of gravity make something that is already incredibly difficult to do almost impossible. And Blackmon, along with the female company, did a cross-stage strut on the tips of their toes. My mouth was unabashedly hanging open as I applauded in amazement. The second highlight started with a diversion from type; up until this point, (and after it), all of the versions of the songs had been performed by Bowie. However, the version of Heroes was the one performed by Peter Gabriel – much more solemn and reverent than the hard-rocking Bowie classic. This piece undoubtedly represented the sadness of Bowie’s death. It ended with the company in a single line across the stage with one of the dancers hugging members of the company one by one. Just as tears begin to come to your eye, the bright strains of the 80’s classic “Modern Love” came blasting through the speakers, reminding us that David Bowie would not want us to dwell on sadness, but celebrate the intricacies and beautiful mysteries of life while we have the chance.
I sincerely hope that The Kennedy Center knows the impact that bringing diverse and exemplary performances like this have on the people of Washington D.C. People like me, who was moved and astounded by the athleticism and artistry that I saw represented in “Ballet Across America.” I hope that these performances are something that we can look forward to seeing more of in the future.
While “Ballet Across America” has concluded, click here for more information on upcoming performances at the Kennedy Center.