The National Symphony Orchestra: ‘New Moves Symphony + Dance: From Schuman to Bernstein’

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New Moves: symphony + dance delights both dance fans and music aficionados.

Give a MacArthur “Genius” award to the person who came up with the idea to merge music and dance in the National Symphony Orchestra’s latest festival. These three unique programs consist entirely of American music with a live dance component. At last night’s kick-off with Keigwin + Company in New Moves: Symphony + Dance: From Schuman to Bernstein at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, Meg Booth hinted that this concept came from the symphony. “A cross-fertilization of the arts,” commented The Kennedy Center’s director of dance programming.

NEW MOVES-symphony   dance_Keigwin   Company_Matthew Baker, Kile Hotchkiss, Ashley Browne.Photo by Kyle Manfredi.

NEW MOVES: Symphony+ Dance Keigwin Company: Matthew Baker, Kile Hotchkiss, and Ashley Browne. Photo by Kyle Manfredi.

While dance is this writer’s bailiwick, the musical portion of Wednesday’s performance was both delightful and informative, especially the Bassoon Concerto that featured NSO bassoonist Sue Heineman. The composer Marc Neikrug points out in the playbill that the specific nature of this instrument poses unique challenges in a concerto context. “The bassoon has a very particular range such that the higher it goes, the softer and more difficult to project it is, unlike, say, a cello.” Interesting!

The opening New England Triptych by William Schuman turned out to be an impressive Americana salute, old-fashioned and patriotic with glorious French horn solos and percussive drumbeats that make the heart beat a little faster.

The musicians remained on stage for the second half of the program with dancers on a marley floor placed horizontally across the lip of the proscenium stage. Two world premieres, created by Larry Keigwin, for his company, were danced to Leonard Bernstein’s rousing On The Town, and a more pensive suite from his On The Waterfront. As it has been mentioned in newspapers and advanced publicity, the Bernstein estate had specific rules for the choreographer. Keigwin needed to keep away from using sailors and girlfriends (and mobsters, too) in that familiar New York City fanfare, and this writer did, indeed, miss some of the Gene Kelly’s showoff kicks and Frank Sinatra’s swag.

Nonetheless, it was fun to watch Ashley Browne, Matthew Baker, Brandon Cournay, Kile Hotchkiss, Emily Schoen and Jaclyn K. Walsh dash onto the stage with abandon. Loved the jitterbug and the over the head lifts without hesitation. These six dancers are athletic, spirited, and obviously trained in both ballet and modern dance. The second piece found the dancers dreamy, and we had the chance to hone in on the movement. The choreography captured the wit of Paul Taylor, the daring of David Parsons, and the humor of Doug Varone (Keigwin performed with his troupe). A friend suggested that this company “dances out of the box,” certainly true last evening.

Still one wonders if Keigwin’s two new dances would have had the same impact without the power of the music. And can dancers do with their bodies what the musicians did with their instruments? It will be interesting to see the next two installments in the festival. New Ballet Ensemble/From Gershwin to Ellington offers a dance performance by Memphis jookin artists May 10-13th, followed by From Adams to Copland with the Jessica Lang Dance May 16-17th.

Conductor Thomas Wilkins. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Conductor Thomas Wilkins. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

If I had to choose one artist who best represented this glorious marriage of music and dance, the nod goes to conductor Thomas Wilkins whose task is to lead the orchestra but take note of the dancers precariously perched in front of 100 musicians. Wilkins, the current Music Director of the Omaha Symphony spoke during costume changes. “We are delighted to present 10 composers (two born in DC), 14 pieces of music, 3 choreographers and dozens of dancers.”  He emphasized the “collaborative, communicative and conviction” of the choreographers and, even more importantly, the need for “fresh eyes and ears” in the Concert Hall. “My musicians were jumping in their seats with almost as much energy as the dancers,” joked this undeniable star of the evening’s performance. He will return to the NSO this summer at Wolf Trap with guest artist will Yo-Yo Ma.

The National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance:Thomas Wilkins, conductor, continues tonight, May 8th, at 7 p.m. at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall – 2700 F St NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets range from $10 – $85. Purchase tickets online, by phone at (202) 467-4600, or at The Kennedy Center box office.

Running time: 2 hours, with one 20-minute intermission.

AfterWords: A free discussion with the artists and NSO Director of Artistic Planning Nigel Boon follows the concert on Monday, May 1th.

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