Going Out With a Bang:
The Washington Ballet’s Carmina Burana and Bowie/Queen
The standing ovation came before a single dancer took the stage. It lasted about two minutes to honor the final time The Washington Ballet’s loyal opening night audience would hear the game-show like introduction: “Ladieeeessssss and Gentlemen, Septiiiiiiiiime Webre.” Bounding onto the stage in his slim-cut suit, sock-less as usual, the audience stood as he took in the crowd getting a touch emotional. Then he introduced the company’s season closer, and his last show as artistic director of the company he helmed for 17 years. Bowie & Queen, an evening of ballet inspired by iconic 1980s rockers David Bowie and Queen’s Freddie Mercury, is his final statement and it seems he wants to blow the roof off The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Bowie, of course, died earlier this year and Mercury died in 1991 at age 45. Both left behind tremendous bodies of work that changed the music industry.
Over its nearly two decades, it was a fortuitous match, Webre and The Washington Ballet. During his tenure he took a fine, but somewhat sleepy and staid company, founded by D.C.’s grand dame of ballet Mary Day, and transformed the troupe into one of the city’s hottest tickets. He modernized the company with daring choreographic choices, challenging his young dancers with major classics from Giselle to a world-renowned Swan Lake, neoclassic masterworks from George Balanchine, and the best from contemporary choreographers, including the likes of Mark Morris, William Forsythe, and Twyla Tharp. He also introduced rising fresh choreographic voices, among them the two dancemakers on the Bowie & Queen program: Edwaard Liang, now artistic director of BalletMet Columbus (Ohio), and Trey McIntyre. Webre also contributed his own works to his oft spectacle driven mix, revamping a tired Nutcracker, reimagining Alice (in Wonderland), and reinventing American literary classics as full-length ballets – The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and [The Legend of] Sleepy Hollow. Finally, and not often commented on, Webre reshaped the company with a cadre of dancers from around the world, integrating what was essentially an all-white troupe with dancers of color from Asia, South America, and Africa and homegrown Americans of all races.
To close out his time in D.C., last month Webre revived his opulent and bawdy Carmina Burana, which had its premiere a decade ago and wowed audiences then with stunning showmanship, musicality, design and, of course, dancing. With the Cathedral Choral Society, directed by J. Reilly Lewis, Arlington Children’s Chorus, exceptional soprano soloist Melissa Wimbish, tenor Timothy Augustin and baritone Stephen Combs joining the dancers onstage it was a multidisciplinary piece in the grand tradition of another great impresario, the Ballet Russes Sergei Diaghilev. Add in the crafty stage design by Regan Kimmel that puts the chorus on three-levels of scaffolding framing the stage, sexy and hot black costumes by Liz Vandal, and lusty, juicy choreography that channels the lush abandon of the oft-played Carl Orff score and the result is an undeniable high. Orff’s composition set a series of medieval German monk’s drinking songs into an expansive musical statement that demands big and lavish production numbers. (Think rollercoaster commercials.)
And Webre complied, managing to hit all those highs and dips with abandon, wit, and whimsy. His dancers threw themselves into heavy duty unison sections, then turned playful in some fun numbers, especially for his buff men manipulating chairs then brooms to sweep clean sweep tossed confetti. There’s an oversized queen, carted around on a rolling scaffold, who baldly reveals her backside and her comeuppance. The duets are filled with ardor and Webre here has not over choreographed the most intimate pas de deux, making it a loving and lovely expression of romantic and sensual connection. With nothing small nor understated about this revival of Carmina Burana, grandiose and gigantic are fitting descriptions for his enchanting ballet with its life-giving feverish forces. Accompanied by a solid version of Balanchine’s stately Theme and Variations, it was a wonderful way to begin the long farewell to Webre.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes.
Carmina Burana was performed on April 13-17, 2016 at The Washington Ballet, performing at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre.
The final goodbye comes this week and next with that double-header titled Bowie & Queen. I’ve long challenged the efficacy of using rock and roll in ballet primarily because I haven’t seen a successful rock ballet yet. Ballet is about technical proficiency of the body, about balance, equilibrium, line – essentially geometry of the body in motion. Rock and roll is about abandon, freedom, rebellion and unbridled physicality. To me the two forms often seem mutually exclusive.
Choreographer and former New York City Ballet dancer Edwaard Liang’s Dancing in the Street provided the Bowie half of the program. But this isn’t the flamboyant, high-energy kinetic Bowie with his sexy pout and his indeterminate sexuality. In fact, only two musical selections – Good Morning Girl and I’m Not Losing Sleep are performed by Bowie in the work (alas on the Eisenhower’s muddy sounding speaker system). Much of the music was composed by Gabriel Gaffney Smith, who drew on Bowie for inspiration, but it wasn’t his actual music that inspired the composition for piano, violin, cello and percussion, which was played by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra.
It was the introspective, artistic Bowie who spoke in interviews that Smith listened to for inspiration. The music is lovely, richly toned, evocative and emotive. Liang’s choreography, alas, is mostly run-of-the-mill. Featuring an agreeable Tamas Krizsa, clad in white jeans and a t-shirt, as the featured dancer, the ballet begins under a street lamp. Later phalanxes of dancers, clad in brightly colored dresses for the women, slacks and t-shirts for the men, whipped out turns, lifts and balletically inspired allegro, fast-paced footwork. “Dancing” is structured like a classical ballet with an opening movement, variations with four couples, additional theme and variations, a slow movement and pas de deux with the gorgeous Sona Kharatian partnred by Krizsa before the ballet comes full circle. Nothing about it feels free or rebellious or makes me want to rock out and dance, alas.
My rule of thumb about the problems of mixing rock and ballet was disproved by choreographer Trey McIntyre, a Webre favorite whose works have graced the company’s repertory for more than a decade now. “Mercury Half-Life” premiered on McIntyre’s own now-defunct troupe, Trey McIntyre Project, in 2013. This production looks terrific – hard driving, uninhibited, and mostly smartly capturing the operatic and vaudevillian tropes of Mercury’s iconic and ironic music for Queen. Here, the musical selections comprise a best-of album, from two versions of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” to “Bicycle Race” to “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You.”
Wearing Melissa Schlachtmeyer’s chic white shorts or miniskirts and jackets, with white ballet slippers and knee socks, the dancers look like tennis-playing high schoolers – clean, bright, artificially bored. McIntyre puts ten dancers through their paces, playing both with and against the music, allowing for the unexpected, the quirky and the simply surprising results as dancers skip, slide, run, leap and freeze at varying moments. “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” has old fashioned vaudevillian influences and quick-footed Daniel Roberge throws down a finely executed tap number. Later he is joined by a bevy of women, backing him up with Broadwayesque gravevine steps and toe taps. That melds into some heavy hitting choreography that relies on ever evolving formations of dancers, who rarely mimic the music, instead that play against it or expand it. The structure is loose, casual, driven by the musical choices that McIntyre blended together in a freeform manner.
There are sections with unchecked solos where dancers literally do the impossible, with leaps, dives, one-armed hand-stands, and mid-air catches of horizontally prone dancers who seem momentarily frozen before thrusting forward head first. There’s both a toughness and a playfulness in the way the dancers attack or hurl themselves in McIntyre’s choreography. He captures the essence of Mercury and the grandiosity of the Queen musical catalogue.
There’s no restraint here no held torsos or loving epaulment of the shoulders and arms. While the choreography favors plenty of specific phrases with complex arms and non-stop footwork, there’s hardly a fussy arabesque or perfectly held pirouette in sight, which is exactly what this ballet needs. It’s rock and roll, which demands more off-kilter, off-balance, unrestrained attack. The Washington Ballet’s ten dancers – Kateryna Derechnyna, Nicole Graniero, Jonathan Jordan, Sona Kharatian, Tamas Krizsa, Brooklyn Mack, Tamako Miyazaki, Andile Ndlovu, Maki Onuki, and Daniel Roberge – like great rockers, they leave it all on the stage.
And Webre? It will be hard not to miss him and the contributions he made to making hometown ballet an exciting and glamorous. He rocked it to the end.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes.
Bowie & Queen plays from May 4-15, 2016 at The Washington Ballet performing at The The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.