Review: Ballet Across America Showcases a New Day in Dance at The Kennedy Center

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Since its debut in 2008, The Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America series continues to showcase the best of ballet from regional companies across the nation. This fourth time around, there are the added elements of athleticism, those thrilling moves that American dancers do so well, plus diversity, social consciousness and definitely edginess, curated by two of the biggest ballet stars, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) Principal Misty Copeland and New York City Ballet Resident Choreographer and Soloist Justin Peck.

Misty Copeland, Justin Peck, and Ballet Across America dancers. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Dance programming often follows a rather predictable pattern that tries to balance new choreographic efforts with old warhorse ballets. This week at the Center’s Opera House, however, the two ballet superstars are producing two separate programs, each running three times, with a promise to change the way we look at dance. These concerts are part of JFKC: A Centennial Celebration of John F. Kennedy, inspired by five enduring ideals often ascribed to JFK: “Courage, Freedom, Justice, Service and Gratitude.”

Dressed in a fabulous white outfit, her blonde hair hanging loose and her demeanor totally professional, New York City Ballet Principal Sara Mearns hosted last night’s festive Opening Night Celebration. It was if we had been invited to a millennial’s dinner party where we tasted bits and pieces of a lovely meal. We were treated to a glimpse of what to expect from Misty and Justin (who did not dance but spoke briefly about selected companies and works) and caught the world premiere of a new film by Ezra Hurwitz, a joyful celebration of dancers cavorting through the hallowed halls of The Kennedy Center.

“Dreams to come true,” Copeland told the enthusiastic audience who welcomed her words of encouragement for “black and brown bodies to tell their story.” And what stories these dancers told last night…and will continue to tell throughout the weekend. The world premiere of Garden of Dreams, choreographed by Jeremy McQueen, captures the aspirations of the young, talented students of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.

The students of ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School perform Garden of Dreams. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Though it was only a small sampling of the Ballet Across America series, last night’s showcase was special for many reasons. I’m not sure who was responsible for bringing back Antony Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading” to the Kennedy Center. Watching Stella Abrera melt into the arms of Marcelo Gomes, words fail me. Washington’s prized ballerina Amanda Mckerrow and her husband John Gardner staged the Pas de Deux with sensitivity and poignancy – much like Tudor intended. It brought back so many memories.

Justin Peck is a fascinating dancer/choreographer – one to watch for future presentations at the Kennedy Center. His Chutes and Ladders was created for Jeannette Delgado and Renan Cerdeiro of the Miami City Ballet. The piece last night offered quirky moves and unusual physical demands, stressing yearning contrasted with hopelessness.

Here’s a prediction: You are going to love Desmond Richardson from Complexions onstage in whatever Misty Copeland has selected, especially when Dwight Rhoden is the choreographer. Last night, the powerful solo took our breath away with the unexpected movements and powerful pauses and, especially, the words of Maya Angelou.

You can’t go wrong ending an evening with a stage full of gorgeous dancers from The Nashville Ballet, accompanied by Ben Folds, one of the hottest musicians around. Or with the words of Justin Peck as he held hands with his dance friends, “Everything I’ve chosen for the festival is something that I hope people across America get to experience and enjoy.”

To kick off tomorrow night’s series opener (April 19-21), Misty Copeland chose Complexions (one of my favorite contemporary ballet companies) performing Dwight Rhoden’s Star Dust, a tribute to David Bowie; the Nashville Ballet, in Concerto, created by the company’s artistic director; and the Black Iris Project with a tribute to Nelson Mandela called Madiba.

Peck’s second installment (April 22 and 23) includes L.A. Dance Project, performing a new work by Benjamin Millepied (from the Black Swan film fame) called Hearts and Arrows, Kyle Abraham, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise, danced by the Joffrey Ballet, worth the price of the ticket alone.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Ballet Across America is danced through Sunday, April 23, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. There are free post-show talks and more. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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