By Ilena Peng
This article was first published in The DC Line here.
The Washington Ballet launched its 2019-20 season last week with NEXTsteps, an aptly named glimpse of dance’s interdisciplinary and collaboration-centered future. The show at the Sidney Harman Hall featured three evocative dances: Jessica Lang’s Reverence, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Delusional Beauty and John Heginbotham’s RACECAR.
The dances in NEXTsteps reinterpreted notable works of music and art, including Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op. 13 and Salvador Dali’s “Woman With a Head of Roses” painting.
“NEXTsteps reflects the voices and works of our time,” Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent wrote in a blurb for the show’s program book. “It is the responsibility of the leaders of our art form to allow for the development of new works and to steward ballet into the 21st century.”
The show opened with a performance by students from the Washington School of Ballet in celebration of the school’s 75th anniversary this year. Défilé, a choreography by Kent, drew audible awws from the audience when the curtain went up on two of the youngest students.
In a field known for impermanence, Lang’s choreographic career has enjoyed unusual longevity; Reverence is her 104th ballet. In addition to creating dances for her own company, Lang has choreographed for some of the world’s leading companies, including American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Reverence was set to Schumann’s notoriously difficult etudes, which were brilliantly performed by pianist and Washington Ballet music supervisor Glenn Sales. American classical pianist Beth Levin once said Schumann’s etudes “can be the reason a pianist sometimes leaves the practice room on a stretcher.”
The muted-tone costumes, airy choreography and melodic piano accompaniment were reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, but with a calmer energy. Where Robbins’ work evokes a joyous springtime walk in the park, Lang’sconveys a melancholic sense of camaraderie.
The ballet evoked a sense of tranquility and, while plotless, also conveyed a sense of community — the ballet began and ended with the dancers holding hands.
Additionally, Reverence played against convention in some interesting ways: Ballet dancers are commonly expected to be soundless, but Reverence incorporated clapping. It also defied traditional gender norms that ballet has long adhered to, including an entrance in which female dancers lifted a male dancer onto the stage.
“Reverence is my definition of ballet, and it was created with the intention that it be experienced, not explained,” Lang wrote in her choreographer’s note.
The second dance — Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Delusional Beauty —centered around “The Golden Figure,” who donned a floor-length golden gown and an oversize floral headpiece. Ochoa wrote that the dance is intended to be “an ode to Salvador Dalí’s surrealist world,” and was inspired by postcards she collected of the artist’s paintings, including “La femme à la tête de fleur” (roughly, “Woman with a head of roses”).
The piece left some ambiguity for the audience to ponder, namely the golden prop balloons and whispering vocals.
Groups of dancers performed independently in corners of the stage, asking the audience to take in the whole like a painting, considering countless focal points, striking details and the overall scene.
“While making the work, it struck me that I could still watch and enjoy [Dali’s] images while as a creative myself my art evaporates into the realm of memory once it happens, leaving merely a sensation,” Ochoa wrote in her choreographer’s note.
Music by Christen Lien and Aaron Martin, including eerie whispers and wind and water sounds, contributed to the eerie ambience of the piece, which was partly funded by the DC Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs. Kateryna Derechyna never left the stage as “The Golden Figure,” with the other dancers all interacting with and revolving around her. The piece also included an exquisite pas de deux, performed Friday evening by Katherine Barkman and Javier Morera.
Where Reverence and Delusional Beauty share a sense of calm abstraction, John Heginbotham’s RACECAR revelled in structure and rhythm. Heginbotham started his arts career as a dancer in the Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris is known for the inventiveness and musicality of his choreography, and the dominance of musicality within the choreographic ideas of RACECAR may stem from Higenbotham’s time with Morris.
Guided by the drums in Jason Treuting’s unnamed composition that accompanied (and inspired) Heginbotham’s choreography, the work’s 16 dancers were tightly attuned to complex rhythms for the 20-minute duration of the piece. Treuting delights in “making pieces that translate numbers and letters into patterns of sound,” and this work, arranged by Alliance Artist Management and performed by Sō PERCUSSION, lent a sense of strict urgency reflected in the dancers’ sharp, but never abrupt, movements.
The visual spectacle of the dancers was emphasized by interlocking formations and changes between monochromatic white and red costumes. Even simple movements like rising on pointe with dancers’ feet in parallel were made intriguing with repetition.
“It moves from order to disorder to symbiosis and back out the other side,” Higenbotham wrote in his choreographer’s note.
The lighting for all three works, by Joseph R. Walls, added crucial elements: RACECAR’s jarring red and Delusional Beauty’s gradients added depth and texture to those works; the lighting shifts in Reverence made the audience feel as if days were passing by as the stage changed from brightly lit to largely in shadow, with colors shifting from light blues to purples.
While NEXTsteps emphasized the future of dance, the remainder of The Washington Ballet’s season is drawn from the classical repertory, including story ballets The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Coppélia. The season will also include performance of works by George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton.
No matter the quality of the choreography and the skill of the dancers, no performance can succeed independent of quality production, including music, lighting and costumes. This first production of the company’s 2019-20 season offered hopeful insight not only into what ballet may look like in the coming decades, but the quality of the forthcoming offerings.