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Ilena Peng

Dancing into Yuletide: a Nutcracker with video projections, another with American historical figures

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Thanksgiving isn’t the only sign this week that the Christmas season is upon us, with the curtain rising on two incarnations of The Nutcracker ballet at DC theaters. An evergreen holiday tradition that originated in Russia in 1892, the traditional two-act ballet follows a young girl’s adventures through a fantastical land after her magical toy nutcracker comes to life. 

For those who haven’t seen The Nutcracker, imagine if someone were to cross the story of The Wizard of Oz with Dancing With the Stars. Even those who have never attended a dance performance are probably familiar with the music: Portions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite are seemingly a ubiquitous soundtrack of the holiday season.

Locally, the Washington Ballet — which premiered its current version, with an American history twist, in 2004 — opened Nutcracker season with performances last weekend at Ward 8’s Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) in preparation for a monthlong run that starts Saturday at the Warner Theatre. For those looking for something less familiar, the Atlanta Ballet brings its new production of The Nutcracker to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday for a five-day visit.

The Washington Ballet at the Warner Theatre: Nov. 30 to Dec. 29

Now in its 16th year of performance, Septime Webre’s The Nutcracker takes place during an 1882 Christmas Eve celebration at a Georgetown mansion. George Washington is the Nutcracker here, and when he battles “the Rat King,” it’s King George III. Other historical figures including Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross also appear, as does iconic DC scenery — the famous “Waltz of the Flowers,” for example, is renamed here the “Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms.”

“It’s become a family favorite, certainly a holiday tradition,” said Barbara Berti, public relations manager for the ballet company. “People come with their grandchildren and their parents, and it’s still very appealing to all ages. Everybody loves it.”

DC Theatre Scene wrote in 2017 that Webre’s DC-inspired Nutcracker is “like no other, but familiar enough not to be too jarring to traditionalists.” In a 2015 review, The Washington Post’s Sarah L. Kaufman noted that the production “at times feels too hectic for [the company’s members] to shine.” Instead, it rests upon “the cleverness and adorability of its least-experienced and littlest dancers.” 

Once again this year, the performance schedule began with several shows at THEARC, where the Washington School of Ballet opened its Southeast DC campus in 2005 — complete with a 400-seat theater that’s large enough to accommodate the annual Nutcracker performances.

The schedule at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW, continues almost through New Year’s Day, and that’s intentional. Berti said the post-Christmas shows allow family members visiting from out of town to see the production after the Christmas festivities are over. 

“Our version is just so beloved and enjoyed by so many — and it does kind of take up the whole month of December,” Berti said.

As for the November dates, the company added six extra performances last year — an effort to boost revenue in light of a $3 million debt, The Washington Post reported. The timing continues this year, although Berti declined to comment on revenue projections or needs.

Three performances will be accompanied by special events: Family Day (Dec. 1), Military Appreciation Night (Dec. 4) and the Nutcracker Tea Party (Dec. 8). 

Family Day features pre-performance activities for children, like coloring and ornament making, as well as opportunities to watch a rehearsal and take photos with dancers. On Military Appreciation Night, cast members and military dignitaries greet audience members prior to a rehearsal of The Nutcracker’s “Soldiers Marching” dance.

The Nutcracker Tea Party, which audiences can attend at the Willard InterContinental Hotel either before or after the day’s 1 p.m. performance, treats guests to refreshments like tea sandwiches and scones (plus mimosas for adults). Party guests can also take photos with the Sugar Plum Fairy and other dancers.

The Atlanta Ballet at The Kennedy Center: Nov. 27 to Dec. 1

The Atlanta Ballet’s first appearance in recent memory at the Kennedy Center features the company’s new production of The Nutcracker, which premiered last year. The production closely follows the traditional storyline from E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King — the predecessor to the 1892 ballet — but adds a modern spin with video projection technology.

The production’s choreographer is Yuri Possokhov, who after 12 years dancing with the San Francisco Ballet is now that company’s choreographer-in-residence. Possokhov first delved into integrating video projection and ballet when he choreographed Swimmerfor the Bay Area company in 2015. 

Possokhov’s works have been performed at companies nationwide such as Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, as well as internationally at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and the Georgia State Ballet.

The production’s video projections are designed by Finn Ross, who won a Tony Award for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the rest of the team is no less stellar — dance-world luminaries Tom Pye, Sandra Woodall and David Finn designed the production’s sets, costumes and lighting, respectively.

This Nutcracker is the Atlanta Ballet’s first major commissioned production by Gennadi Nedvigin, who became artistic director in 2016. Like choreographer Possokhov, Nedvigin is also a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer. 

In an interview with The DC Line, Nedvigin said the holiday production simultaneously appeals to older generations with its traditional storyline and the younger “video gamer” generation with its digital projections.The latter, he said, “kind of serve as a glue between the real world and imaginary world, and it really fits this story perfectly.”

Possokhov’s Nutcracker’spremiere last year brought more ticket sales than any of the Atlanta Ballet’s prior productions of the holiday classic, and this Kennedy Center run marks the company’s first performances outside of Atlanta in some time. 

Nedvigin said he hopes the performance will spark audience members’ interest in the Atlanta Ballet’s work. He added that he is “super thrilled” to be in DC, having previously danced at the Kennedy Center on several occasions.

“Every time I’m coming back, it’s almost like I’m coming back home,” he said. “It brings a lot of memories from my performing days, and to be able to bring my own company to the same stage is meaning … a lot to me, and I just want to share it with everyone.”

The Washington Ballet glimpseS A collaborative future IN NEXTSTEPS

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 NutcrackerSwan 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.

Mariinsky’s new ‘Paquita’ shines as modern homage to golden age of classical ballet

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita — on stage for the past week at the Kennedy Center — combines new choreography with that of its 19th-century predecessor in an updated production that maintains the same grandeur and classical technique that defined the original.

The first performances of the ballet Paquita occurred in Paris in 1846 with choreography by Joseph Mazilier, but the well-loved versions still performed today are based on a Paquita choreography by Marius Petipa that premiered the next year. The Mariinsky’s Paquita at the Kennedy Center since Tuesday is a new-millennium Paquita inspired by the Petipa iteration but infused with choreography by Mariinsky dancer Yuri Smekalov. 

One can conceive of the relationships between these two Paquita choreographies as something like the difference between the Lurman movie Romeo + Juliet starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio and a version of the same story performed by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Somewhat confusingly, while retaining some of the traditional choreography, this new Paquita produced by the Russian-based company incorporates elements of Miguel de Cervantes’ novella La Gitanilla, about a teenage girl born into an upper-class family who was kidnapped as an infant by gypsies. 

Both the original and new Paquita culminate in a glittering Act III Grand Pas wedding celebration, which is the only part of the Mariinsky’s new production that retains Petipa’s original choreography (with reconstruction and staging by Mariinsky’s Yuri Burlaka). Paquita is one of a handful of 19th-century works that have become synonymous with ballet. Giselle, another mainstay of the classical ballet repertoire, will be performed by the American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center in February.

Maria Khoreva is a stunning Paquita, embodying the character’s youth both in her exuberant onstage energy and her actual age — Khoreva is only 19, having risen to the rank of first soloist in just her first season at the Mariinsky. DC balletgoers first met Khoreva when she performed the lead role in Le Corsaire at the Kennedy Center last year.

Yet Khoreva’s Paquita is also mature and independent — she commanded the stage Friday night in her ability to convey emotions from joy to despair in the first two acts and in her third-act portrayal of Paquita as both sophisticated and free-spirited.

The athleticism of the Mariinsky’s leading men seemed at times more than human, including seemingly effortless turns and jumps where the performers appeared to hover in the air. Konstantin Zverev’s portrayal of the male protagonist, Andrés, was notably elegant and was most expressive in Act II alongside Khoreva in the jail scene; Zverev’s pathos and sadness were palpable. Victor Caixeta, as the poet Clemente, commanded the audience’s attention early in the ballet with an Act I variation where his grand jete series sent him nearly floating across stage in a tuxedo tailcoat.

Smekalov’s choreography retains the same sense of grandeur as the Petipa Paquita but with added humor (including two dancers who donned a horse costume). Signs of the Mariinsky’s traditional technical style were evident throughout, including a focus on expressive upper-body movement, made eye-catching by colorful capes and skirts.

The Russian dancers’ acting skills were impeccable, allowing a narrative to be conveyed to the audience more clearly than in many similar performances. Particularly effective performances in this regard came from Maria Bulanova as Carducha, Alexander Romanchikov as the young man, and Elena Bazhenova as the old woman who raised Paquita. The ballet opened with Paquita being kidnapped by Bazhenova, who triumphantly lingered to show the audience her victory before scurrying offstage. Bulanova was convincingly jealous of Paquita in Act II, and Romanchikov maintained his relaxed demeanor into his bows, drawing laughs from the audience.

Maria Shirinkina stood out throughout the show as Paquita’s friend Cristina, most notably in her Grand Pas variation. Anastasia Lukina’s and Yana Selina’s Grand Pas variations were also exceptionally elegant. 

Smekalov’s new Paquita is part of an ongoing trend of reinterpretation of the classical story ballet. Area audiences may have seen what’s become a local holiday tradition — The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker, choreographed by former Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre and set in a Georgetown mansion with George Washington as the heroic nutcracker. American Ballet Theatre artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky is reconstructing/re-creating several 19th-century ballets, part of an ongoing conversation about tension between innovation and preservation of classical ballet. 

The Mariinsky describes this Paquita as a modern “homage to the golden age of classical ballet — a mark of respect and gratitude” to Petipa. Taken in its entirety, the Mariinsky’s Paquita succeeds as a gimmick-free yet modernized display of classical technique.