George Balanchine is widely regarded as the father of American ballet and a giant of dance in general. His over 400 works helped to define modern ballet as we know it. The Washington Ballet paid tribute to this artistic titan this past week at the Kennedy Center with a varied and electric program of dance.
Artistic director Julie Kent took the stage at the start to welcome the audience and introduce the four works that the Washington Ballet had selected to represent an incredibly dynamic and diverse career. Most in the ballet community know Kent from her distinguished career as a dancer herself, being the longest serving dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s 83 year history. However, others will likely recognize her from her appearance in the 2000 dance centric film “Center Stage.” You could feel the reverence in her voice as she spoke about Balanchine and it was obvious the importance this choreography has to this community.
…a glorious and excellently crafted tribute to a giant of the ballet world of a quality that we all expect from an institution as illustrious as The Washington Ballet…a true triumph.
This performance was further enhanced by the presence of the live Washington Ballet Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Charles Barker. Barker has conducted all around the world, including acting as Principal Conductor of American Ballet Theatre since 1987. He has also conducted for film and television dance specials in the US, UK, Japan, and Australia.
Production wise, the stage was kept bare, and the background a simple blue for most of the show. This was an excellent choice, because it put the primary focus on the movement and emotion of the dancers.
This program kicked off with the piece “Concerto Barocco,” set to the music of Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach. When first performed, during a tour of South America in 1941, it was instantly revolutionary for its simplicity of costume, being reminiscent of clothing dancers wore at rehearsals instead of the elaborate and bejeweled costumes audiences were used to seeing.
At my performance, the three principal dancers were Ayano Kimura, Ashley Murphy-Wilson, and Javier Morera, performing amongst the corps de ballet. From the very start, the synchronicity of movement amongst the dancers was remarkable. Whether it was mirrored movement or at the same time, it was beautiful. The dancers made Balanchine’s choreography look effortless, which as anyone who knows ballet knows, it is not. The simple costumes only brought more attention to the precise movements and intricate weaving shapes of the dancers. Murphy-Wilson was captivating. It was difficult to take your eyes off of her when she was onstage. Not only were her movements impeccable, but the emotion and feeling she brought to the movement was palpable. Kimura and Morera also impressed both individually and during their pas de deux.
The next piece was titled “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” and was performed by Tamako Miyazaki and Lope Lim at this performance. This piece is an interesting one, with the music originally being composed by Tchaikovsky for Act 3 of “Swan Lake,” but then being shelved after his death by the revival mounted by Marius Petipa. It was rediscovered in 1953 and Balanchine’s choreography premiered in 1960 New York City.
The costumes here are much more traditional, though the set remains bare. While the dancing itself is always important, they way it makes the viewer feel can sometimes transcend the actual movement itself. From the very first moment of this dance, waves of pure joy radiated from the stage. The choreography was light and effervescent, showing how these two were lifted up on the wings of love. The costumes themselves were also romantic—Miyazaki in a pink outfit, with a lyrical skirt, and Lim in a cavalier look (designed by Haydee Morales.) The two of them together were magical. Their lifts looked weightless and their execution of the famous inverted fish dive was inspired. They also sparkled on their solo dances with their exuberant movements matching the rapturous joy on their faces.
After the first intermission, the program continued with “Apollo,” a masterpiece of modern ballet that Balanchine developed with his dear friend and frequent partner, Igor Stravinsky. Premiering in Paris in 1928, the ballet has the god Apollo (Gian Carlo Perez) frolicking with three of the muses—Calliope, muse of poetry (Brittany Stone); Terpsichore, muse of dance (Adelaide Clauss); and Polyhymnia, muse of mime (Andrea Allmon). This choreography was revolutionary for several reasons, but most notable was the infusion of jazz inspired movement in collaboration with the more classical ballet. Perez is mesmerizing at every moment. His technique is only matched by his charisma. The three muses also impress both individually and as a group. There were so many incredible moments in this piece, but the ending pose, seen at the top of the review was my absolute favorite moment.
The performance concluded with “Theme and Variations,” perhaps the most traditional piece of the program, with absolutely gorgeous costumes borrowed from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and several crystal chandeliers added to the stage. The corps really shined in this piece, with their many bodies moving seemingly as one. They also created such beautiful and intricate shapes with their bodies. Principal dancers Nicole Graniero and Rench Soriano delivered a stunning performance as well, both singularly and as a pair. Soriano displayed such incredible control and power in his dance. Graniero also stunned with a emotional and nuanced performance.
“Balanchine!” was a glorious and excellently crafted tribute to a giant of the ballet world of a quality that we all expect from an institution as illustrious as The Washington Ballet. Their first offering of 2023 was a true triumph.
“Balanchine!” ran February 22-26, 2023 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Auditorium, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20566. Don’t miss TWB’s next and final performance of the 22-23 season, a full length version of “The Sleeping Beauty,” also at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Auditorium, May 4-7, 2023. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at (202) 467-4600. Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324 or tickets can be purchased online and use the code FAIRYTALE for a 15% discount. Masks are optional.