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Ilena Peng

Ballet dancers showcase recently renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in new video

By IIena Peng

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson dance in the grand reading room of the recently renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The roof of the room is decorated with a textile art installation by Zenobia Bailey. (Screenshot from “Library Reimagined: A Tour in Dance”)

On the last Sunday that Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was closed to the public, two professional ballet dancers whirled through the historic building’s newly renovated space.

The dancers, Alexandra Hutchinson and Derek Brockington, are featured doing lifts in the grand reading room and jumping through the rooftop garden in a new video, “Library Reimagined: A Tour in Dance.” The video showcases the revamped library, which hosted a public celebration late last month to mark the first anniversary of the completion of a four-year renovation that cost more than $211 million.

“We’ve been involved for years and years in renovating the MLK Library, a historic property, and it just needed to be exposed to everyone for all of the new improvements that have been made,” said Robin Diener, the president of MLK Library Friends and a member of the DC Public Library’s MLK Renovation Advisory Panel. “I didn’t know why, but the idea of ballet or dancing or something in the various spaces just seemed to me completely natural.”

The library, located downtown at 901 G St. NW, has been gradually reopening with limited public access since September 2020 due to the pandemic. The day the video was filmed, Sept. 5, was the last Sunday before DC’s central library resumed Sunday and holiday hours.

Hutchinson and Brockington are members of Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company founded by Arthur Mitchell, the New York City Ballet’s first Black principal dancer. In the summer of 2020, the duo produced the video “Dancing Through Harlem,” which caught Diener’s attention. Having known Hutchinson since she was a ballet student, Diener reached out to ask whether she would be interested in dancing through DC’s renovated library. 

Hutchinson, a Southwest DC native who grew up frequenting the MLK and Southwest libraries, readily agreed. 

“I was really excited to be able to tell a story with our bodies. As dancers, we love being storytellers,” Hutchinson said. “And so I think it’s perfect to go with the library.

Working together in New York City, Hutchinson and Brockington began choreographing a piece to music by composer and conductor William Grant Still (1895-1978). Hutchinson said they wanted to incorporate Black artists in their piece. Music by Still — who was the first African American artist to conduct a major symphony orchestra and have a symphony performed by an American professional orchestra — was a “driving force” for the choreography in those early stages, Hutchinson said.

Though Hutchinson and Brockington choreographed most of the piece in New York City, their physical presence in the library on the day of the video shoot inspired elements of their storytelling. In one scene, Brockington hands Hutchinson a library card, which she clutches to her heart. Sitting in a nook, Hutchinson reads a book about famed Sierra Leonean American ballet dancer Michaela DePrince — a current Boston Ballet second soloist and a Dance Theatre of Harlem alumna.

Alexandra Hutchinson reads a book about Michaela DePrince, a Black ballerina and an alumna of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. (Screenshot from “Library Reimagined: A Tour in Dance”)“Little improvisations would come out of just being there, and so we got an element of magic in the filming,” Brockington said. “You’re not really sure how all of this is possible, but when you’re a little kid in a library, sometimes it does feel like that.”

As Hutchinson reads the book about DePrince, Brockington hands her a pair of pointe shoes. The next scene in the video shows Hutchinson lacing up the ribbons on her shoes, wearing a tutu. Hand in hand, the pair walks up the library’s new spiral staircase. 

Hutchinson’s narrative arc in the video — reading a book and then transforming into a ballerina — represents a library’s “limitless possibilities,” said DC Public Library events program coordinator Ryan Williams. Hutchinson’s return to the MLK Library, where she used to study whenever she performed at the nearby Warner Theatre with the Washington School of Ballet, is a real-life example of how libraries are linked to upbringings and growth.

“It’s almost like a Madame Butterfly moment where she ascends those stairs,” Williams said. “That ascension is very much what we want all of our customers to do, no matter where they are in their lives.”

Hutchinson said the scene was “whimsical,” since a librarian ordinarily wouldn’t have pointe shoes available to lend out. But with all the library’s new gadgets and improvements — including a 3-D printer, power tools and a ballet barre — Diener quips that maybe pointe shoes aren’t too far off.

“In the past, they wouldn’t have necessarily had power tools or a ballet barre — but we do have those things,” Diener said. “Toe shoes are probably coming.”

David Weiner, who filmed the video, said it is purely a celebration of the completed space following years of discussion regarding the building’s renovation, a process that began formally in 2011

“This was an opportunity to be something that was purely positive — just something that was just good feelings,” said Weiner, who first began working with Diener and the Friends of MLK Library in the 1990s on the issue of adult literacy. “That’s how I thought about it. And clearly, in the choreography, in the dance, is just the spirit of joy.”

A new kind of CSA: Rhizome DC’s new twist on Community Supported Agriculture just brought art to its first 33 patrons

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

A new initiative for local artists that has community members pay in advance for nine different original works of art distributed its first round of art to 33 participating patrons last Saturday.

The program was formed by Rhizome DC, a community arts nonprofit in the Takoma neighborhood of DC, and Guilded, a freelance worker cooperative and a chapter of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Its Community Supported Art initiative draws from the concept of Community Supported Agriculture, where community members pay upfront at the beginning of the season and receive fresh produce throughout the harvest. 

With Rhizome’s collaboration, up to 50 art patrons can choose to pay between $200 and $500 to fund nine local artists. Each patron will subsequently receive nine pieces of art covering a variety of mediums and topics — one from each artist — during three pickup dates between August and November. The next distribution date is Sept. 18, and new patrons who invest before then will receive art from both the August and September pickups.

Through “The Time Travel Agency,” artist Xena Ni works with viewers to transport and draw moments in their future life. This image is a glimpse of Ni and Ward 1 Mutual Aid organizer Gabrielle Newell in May 21, 2120. (Photo courtesy of Xena Ni)

Driven by their shared experiences working with Community Supported Agriculture, Rhizome DC program director Layne Garrett and Guilded program manager Ajoke Williams joined forces to establish a mechanism to fund the artistic process — not just the sale of the final product — and incorporate social benefits in addition to payment.

“Artists are workers just like employees, and they deserve benefits and security,” Williams said. “I hope this model sheds light on a new framework that shifts the paradigm from just financial contribution to also helping social welfare.”

The partnership between the two organizations provides nine artists with $1,500 stipends, as well as Guilded memberships, which include benefits like health, vision and dental insurance.

The initiative also serves as a different means of fostering interaction between artists and audiences, Williams noted. Prior to the pandemic, she said access to experiencing or creating art was generally tied to a physical location, such as a theater or a community art center like Rhizome DC.

“COVID really highlighted how important it is to have more than just one entryway to art, to have mechanisms that don’t always rely so heavily on the real estate of a particular physical building,” she said.

Garrett said he sees in community-supported art “the same kind of potential” that has been realized for Community Supported Agriculture, which has seen a particular surge in popularity during the pandemic. Paying farmers at the beginning of the season is a “win-win situation,” he said, because it allows them to cover the costs required to start planting, while also reducing the financial risk of having their entire profit be dependent on their crop — and the same could be true for artists. 

“One would hope that society would do a better job of valuing the people who make life worth living — people like farmers and artists,” Garrett said.

While he hopes the community-supported art model will continue to expand, Garrett said he believes even now in its nascent stages it can help artists in the absence of stronger government support for the arts. 

“In the absence of that, something like this can maybe fill the gaps for at least a few people,” he said.

Writer and actor Julia Marks, one of the participating artists, said she previously believed the “starving artist” stereotype — that choosing to be an artist meant that she would have to struggle. But Rhizome’s Community Supported Art initiative and the benefits it offers have led her to realize otherwise.

“Artists deserve to be workers, too,” Marks said. “Just because you’re doing something that you’re passionate about doesn’t mean your life has to be really hard.”

Julia Marks’ play “State of Stagnation Manifesto” was created as part of iiiSTATES, a theater collective she co-founded with Kevin Keogh. (Photo courtesy of Julia Marks)

In addition to providing benefits for artists, the model also offers financial stability and artistic flexibility by getting them part of their stipends upfront to cover material costs, rather than waiting to be paid for a finished product. 

Participant Xena Ni, a multimedia artist who also works as a full-time designer, makes this comparison: As a designer, she is paid for the time she puts into her work, not the number of widgets she designed that are ultimately sold. Yet for artists, pay typically comes only from the sale of already created works. In this way, Ni describes a community-supported arts model as artistically “freeing.”

Being “compensated by sales for specific work [is] so much harder to predict, and suddenly you’re incentivized to make work that a particular audience wants versus being compensated for the time you spent making creative stuff,” Ni said.

Performance artist and writer Fargo Nissim Tbakhi added that community-supported arts benefit both artists and communities by shifting away from the “wealthy collector model.” Such initiatives expand access to collecting quality art by mitigated the pressure artists feel to find wealthy individuals or institutions to purchase their art, he said.

“This offers a way into an arts ecosystem that feels less complicated, less rooted in sort of these ideas of prestige, of respectability,” Tbakhi explained. “But [it] is instead just really boiling it down to how we can make this sustainable for artists and connect them with community members.” 

The Washington Ballet’s youngest dancers struggle to find their footing during the company’s COVID-19 layoff

A group of people gather around a table of food at an outdoor food drive.

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published April 14, 2020 in The DC Line here

Rather than performing Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center this week as originally scheduled, the dancers of The Washington Ballet are among those stuck at home due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The performances have been rescheduled for June, but the resulting layoffs have left some of the youngest dancers — who are completing the final stages of their training in TWB’s studio company — hit hardest by the financial burdens of the unexpected break.

Professional company members, who are signed under a union agreement, are employees who are eligible for unemployment benefits during layoffs like this one. But studio company members are not classified as employees, receiving a weekly stipend of between $250 and $300 in lieu of salaries — and like freelancers and gig workers, they do not typically qualify for unemployment. 

Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, passed by Congress last month, studio company members not claimed as a dependent by their parents may now be eligible for unemployment benefits. Company manager Catherine Eby said the dancers have been encouraged to apply for benefits, but added that it is too early to determine if their applications will be approved.

Eby likens being in the studio company to being an intern. The 10 studio company members often perform with the company but train with The Washington School of Ballet’s highest division. They are students in their “last step” before becoming a professional dancer.

“Financially, this will definitely be harder on the studio company, who won’t have access to the same public benefits that a company member would,” Eby said.

TWB hopes to return to its studios after DC’s stay-at-home order is lifted (it’s currently set to expire April 24), but the timeline will ultimately depend on how the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and the rules established by local and federal officials. Under ordinary circumstances, the company guarantees both main and studio company dancers 37 weeks of employment a year, with a planned layoff in the summer.

“This is just unexpected — the layoff we had planned at the end of the season, they were all expecting and could plan for,” Eby said. “This of course was not something anyone was planning for.”

Without a weekly stipend or unemployment benefits, studio company dancers like Abigail Granlund are left to rely on savings after unsuccessful searches for jobs that no longer exist. She has applied for babysitting, retail and receptionist jobs. Granlund inquired about returning to a restaurant she used to work at, but the business closed its doors the next day.

“I kind of sent my information everywhere and [to] whatever was open at the time,” Granlund said. “I was kind of desperate for anything, whether it was $5 or $10, I didn’t really care. I unfortunately have failed at all my attempts to get a second job, but at this point I’m just praying that finances will come in time.”

Company member Gian Carlo Perez launched a Facebook fundraiser for the studio company on March 15, which received more than 100 donations totaling nearly $9,000. The funds will be distributed evenly among TWB’s 10 studio company members. Perez said he was happy both to see the amount of support TWB had and to be able to help the studio company.

“At the end of the day, they’re performing at the level of the company members,” Perez said.

The Washington Ballet Women’s Committee, an affiliated fundraising and social group, launched a fundraiser on March 16 to provide aid to TWB company and studio company members, as well as students in the Washington School of Ballet’s professional training division. As of April 13, the fundraiser had raised more than $13,270 of its $20,000 goal. The money is distributed to the dancers electronically each week.

The Women’s Committee also held a food and essentials drive on March 19 to support all TWB dancers, as well as the Washington School of Ballet’s professional training division. The drive, while originally envisioned as a weekly event, has since been replaced with care package deliveries to dancers with food, cleaning supplies and other personal care items. A private donor has also contributed $3,500 for Amazon gift cards to allow dancers to buy necessities without going to stores, and a TWB volunteer provided more than $3,400 in Giant Food gift cards.

Studio company member Rench Soriano said he was planning to talk to his landlord in hopes of temporarily renegotiating his rent. His parents had wanted to transfer some money to him but encountered problems because Western Union’s retail locations near them were closed.

Soriano is from the Philippines and could not return home, as the country is in lockdown. He moved to DC last December for his first season at TWB and his first-ever opportunity to dance in a professional company.

“Moving to America was such a dream for me, and I was looking forward to doing a lot with TWB,” he said. “Since all of this is happening, it’s just a little bit disappointing, but I’m looking forward to June — hopefully [Swan Lake] is going to happen. I hope the show goes on.”

Soriano has been staying busy with online classes for ballet, stretching and other workouts. But he said the layoff is “just really tough times” for dancers, who are accustomed to spending most of their day in the studio.

“Being home whole days a week is just painful because we spend our time in the studio a lot,” Soriano said. “We wake up, go to the studio in the morning until 6 at night, so it’s a big loss.”

Studio company member Peyton Anderson, who has been doing daily workouts and ballet classes online, said the layoff is pushing her to take better care of herself without relying on her work to keep her in shape and positive. She added that she is seeing “a lot of positivity” online among artists who have harnessed social media as their new stage.

Anderson has taken virtual classes with TWB ballet master Ruben Martin, TWB dancer Katherine Barkman and TWB artistic director Julie Kent. She added that she hopes this period of social distancing will end up fostering greater interest in the arts. Companies like the Paris Opera Ballet and Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet have uploaded entire ballets online.

“Maybe when all this is over, people will want to come see [the arts] more in person because in history anytime during a disaster, the arts have always been a gateway out of sadness and whatnot,” Anderson said. “So I hope that people just turn to the arts more after this and find inspiration.”

The Washington Ballet’s ‘Balanchine + Ashton’ evokes the spirit of the 20th century’s best choreographers

Eight male and eight female dancers pose in costume next to candelabras and a blue backdrop.

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published February 25, 2020 in DC Line here

In Balanchine + Ashton, which wrapped up a five-day run at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, The Washington Ballet took on the hefty task of capturing the essence of the 20th century’s most monumental choreographers — and it succeeded quite spectacularly.

George Balanchine pioneered American ballet as the New York City Ballet’s founder, creating, beginning in the 1930s, a repertoire of over 90 ballets and a distinct “Balanchine technique.” Sir Frederick Ashton served a similar role in England as the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer and later as the company’s director, choreographing more than 100 ballets.

“The fact that their works are still relevant, engaging and entertaining to audiences today is a reflection of their true genius,” The Washington Ballet (TWB) artistic director Julie Kent wrote in an online blurb about the production, which featured four works from the two choreographers.

TWB’s company is smaller than the likes of the New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet — so much so that several of the dancers last week performed in multiple ballets. Fittingly, Balanchine and Ashton might recognize the challenge, having built small companies into balletic monoliths. 

The TWB production also favored pared-back scenery — three of the works were staged with no decorations save for a few lamps in Ashton’s Birthday Offering. In the company’s first time performing that and two other works — Ashton’s Méditation from Thaïs and Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue — the TWB dancers commanded the Eisenhower Theater stage without visual distractions. The company last performed the fourth piece, Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, three years ago at the Warner Theatre.

Balanchine and Ashton often favored stripped-down set designs, focusing solely on the dancers and the music. But they both strove to maintain the traditional grandeur of the Romantic-era story ballet, often choosing to fill the stage with faster jumps, bigger kicks and extended arm movements.

In the first of the production’s four ballets, Ashton’s Birthday Offering, the TWB dancers leaned into their steps and used their upper bodies in a more exaggerated way than usually seen in classical works. The ballet, which was created to celebrate the Royal Ballet’s 25th anniversary in 1956, is both whimsical and elegant.

Birthday Offering juxtaposed quick staccato variations and much slower waltzes. Dancer Ashley Murphy-Wilson’s variation fit into the former category, as she flitted across the stage dressed in red. In contrast, purple-clad dancer Brittany Stone’s movements showed classical roots.

Featuring music by Alexander Glazunov and arrangements by Robert Irving, the ballet opened in a grand celebration as the couples circled around the stage in tandem. In one memorable moment, the dancers formed a diagonal — as soon as a couple reached the end, they ran back to the front, creating a carousel of turns.

In the ballet’s main duet or pas de deux, dancers Eun Won Lee and Gian Carlo Perez evoked a calmer, more gracious mood. Won Lee directed her gaze at the rafters as she entered the stage with bourrées — quick steps that create the impression of gliding. She did the same in arabesques throughout the pas de deux, creating the touching impression that she was thanking someone — perhaps an audience member — for this celebration. Then, in her curtsies, Won Lee looked instead into the theater’s upper tiers.

Maki Onuki and Andile Ndlovu danced Ashton’s Méditation from Thaïs, a pas de deux set to music originally composed by Jules Massenet for the opera Thaïs. The opera tells the tale of a monk who falls in love with a priestess of Venus, the goddess of love. 

Onuki, entering the stage with a translucent scarf masking her face, had an ethereal presence, and Ndlovu managed throughout the pas de deux to maintain that dynamic during numerous prolonged lifts. In one, Ndlovu carried Onuki in a seated position, her arms up and palms pressed together — and her silhouette visible on the stage’s backdrop. The ballet left many in the Eisenhower Theater holding their breath until its last moments, when Onuki and Ndlovu embraced with a kiss before Onuki glided off stage en pointe.

“It’s a bit of a fantasy pas de deux, a romantic otherworldliness you don’t get a lot of these days,” said Grant Coyle, a Royal Ballet répétiteur who staged the ballet with TWB.

TWB then performed Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, a work the choreographer once said “contains everything I know about the classical ballet in 13 minutes.” In truth, it does that and more. In an element made challenging by its length and the need for exquisite timing, carefully designed sequences had each dancer begin a step just as another was completing it. The ballet also played with angles, as the five male dancers jumped and landed in lunges facing alternating corners of the stage.

Unlike the two earlier works,  Allegro Brillante was accompanied not only by the Washington Ballet Orchestra but also by solo piano. TWB music supervisor Glenn Sales provided the only soundtrack as the ballet’s main couple — Katherine Barkman and Alex Kramer — danced. The orchestra joined the piano as the ballet’s other eight dancers joined Barkman and Kramer on stage.

The four-part performance ended with Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, an upbeat and sultry Jazz Age work originally created for the 1936 musical On Your Toes. In the musical, the ballet’s premiere becomes the backdrop for an attempted murder when a jealous Russian dancer hires a mobster to kill a rival. 

Dancer Corey Landolt kicked off the ballet in a pink bathrobe, peering from behind the curtains and handing money for the assassination to the Gangster, played by Harry Warshaw. Prancing theatrically across the stage, Landolt drew laughs from the get-go. Warshaw took a seat in the audience, waiting for the moment when he had been instructed to kill Hoofer, danced by Gilles Dellelio.

Dellelio, an apprentice in the company, astonished with his charisma in a prolonged, almost frantic tap solo. And dancer Victoria Arrea stunned as the “Striptease Girl,” flirtatious at first in a pink corset and fringe skirt, and then sultry in a black outfit. In one of the ballet’s most famous moments, Arrea performed a series of high kicks while arched into a deep backbend over Dellelio’s arm. In this madcap show, music by Richard Rodgers accentuates the jazz hands and shimmies incorporated into Balanchine’s choreography.

It marked a contrast for a show that began with audiences oohing and aahing as the Washington School of Ballet’s youngest students adorably performed Kent’s Défilé to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary. With Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, the end came with a strong dose of humor and bravado from the company. 

TWB, while smaller in numbers than some ballet companies, captured the genius of these choreographers in a performance that ran the gamut — intimate in Méditation From Thaïs’ love and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’s humor, yet palatial and larger than life in Birthday Offering and Allegro Brillante.

Washington Ballet pianists enhance the artistry of dance performance

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published February 19, 2020 in The DC Line here.

Pianist Glenn Sales is experienced enough — and French composer Jules Massenet’s music is simple enough — that Sales can sneak bites of his sandwich as he plays for The Washington Ballet’s rehearsal of British choreographer Frederick Ashton’s pas de deux Méditation for Thaïs.

Sales, a veteran musician who debuted with the National Symphony Orchestra at age 14 and has played at the White House, is the music supervisor of The Washington Ballet (TWB). He plays live music for the dance company’s performances — and for classes and rehearsals at its Wisconsin Avenue NW school, filling a role that in smaller educational programs has been replaced with CDs and phones. Sales concedes that the presence of more ballet schools means more students learn the art, but he explains that widespread use of recordings favors consistency and predictability over nuanced shifts in a song’s mood or speed.

“This is why we have live everything. It never becomes routine,” Sales said. “I think that’s the death of things, when it becomes routine, an arid routine. Because then your performances can become that — just an arid routine — and I think the No. 1 sin is to bore the audience, and I think that’s what would happen.”

Sales grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, enrolling at The Juilliard School in New York at the age of 17 on a full scholarship. After the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Northeast DC opened in 1990, Sales played at the school for a decade. More recently, he and cellist Yo-Yo Ma held music workshops in 2012 with DC elementary school students. Sales later performed at the White House in collaboration with Juilliard president and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel.

The crossroads of ballet and piano isn’t well-known as a career path, with only a few programs tailored to providing pianists with the specific training needed to accompany dancers. Like many of his colleagues, Sales stumbled into the field. At Juilliard, dance teacher Hector Zaraspe knocked on Sales’ practice room door, telling him that dancers could use someone who played piano with “so much color and so much verve.” Soon after, Sales began learning more about dance and spending more time with Juilliard’s dance students. 

TWB has 22 accompanists in all, and several have similar stories. Michael Parker got his start accompanying opera singers, and Kelly Lenahan flourished as a graduate student in London under the mentorship of a ballet accompanist for England’s famed Royal Opera House and the English National Ballet.

Lenahan, who joined TWB last July, says she had “no idea” until four years ago that being a ballet accompanist was a potential career path. The career had never been mentioned in her undergraduate or graduate piano studies, but then she met Nicki Williamson, a pianist who has worked with most of London’s major ballet schools. After attending Williamson’s weeklong workshop, Lenahan returned to the United States and began playing for ballet classes at a high school in Boston and for Harvard University’s student-run ballet company. 

Lenahan studied and performed Irish dance for many years, and she says her background has helped her recognize just how much her musical approach and energy at the piano can affect the dancers. Lenahan recalls enthusiastic performances of live fiddle or accordion music boosting her confidence as a dancer. She describes playing for dance as a “beautiful collaborative process” easily distinguishable from the more passive dancing likely to occur when listening to a recording.

“Sometimes the dancers to me are almost like a mirror into what I’m playing,” she said. “I see the ways that they interpret things, or I see in their movements responses to the music that I didn’t necessarily hear or anticipate. So there’s always this kind of inspiration in that for me.”

For his part, Parker — who has played at TWB for 13 years — says accompaniment demands more than just the virtuosity required of a solo concert pianist. He carries a trove of music with him to classes, labeled and organized so he can work with the teacher to select and rearrange appropriate pieces.

“It’s not about the pianist capturing the spotlight,” Parker said. “It’s about the pianist in some serious way melding with the dancers or the singers.”

Parker says he sets his personal musical preferences aside and aims to play pieces he knows a teacher or dancer will like. 

“The happy dancer is probably a better dancer than an unhappy dancer,” he said.

The most gratifying part of the job, Parker says, are the moments when he feels that he has contributed to the dancers’ “artistic experiments” — particularly the ballet school’s teenage students as they mature and develop their artistry. Moments like these, Parker said, bring tears to his eyes.

“The ideal is that [the music] helps the dancers do what they have been instructed to do and, in a certain sense, leads them — and, in another way, follows them,” he said.

Based on his years of experience, Parker says that dancers and singers use their bodies to express emotion in the same way musicians use their instruments to do so.

Other similarities arise as well. Just as dancers learn to pace themselves to avoid injury, Sales knows to avoid playing with his fingers splayed out whenever possible, keeping his fingers together to preserve his muscles during long six- to seven-hour workdays. The music for Méditation for Thaïs, for instance, is “relaxed” — without the “gazillions of notes” in pieces like Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which is used in choreographer and New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante. With pieces like Piano Concerto No. 3, Sales says he omits certain notes that make little noticeable difference to conserve energy in rehearsal. Sales played both pieces for weeks as the company rehearsed for Balanchine + Ashton, which opens Wednesday and continues with seven performances over five days.

Over the years, Sales has watched from the piano as young dancers matured, seeing some join other companies, retire or become teachers. Sales first joined TWB as a pianist in 1987, where he stayed until 1990 when he joined the newly founded Kirov Academy. After a decade at Kirov and then 15 years at Maryland’s American Dance Institute, he returned to TWB as the company’s music supervisor in 2016.

The structure of a ballet class remains the same, almost always starting with the slow warmup pliés. But the atmosphere is new each day, and Sales says the job stays fresh as he pursues a higher level of artistry.

“I’ve been blessed in that what I do does not feel like a job at all,” Sales said. “It doesn’t … feel like work for me because it’s all in pursuit of something — something much, much higher.

“I know it’s elusive,” he said. “There’s a certain truth, a certain beauty that I’m always trying to reach higher and higher to get to — but never quite getting it.” 

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.