What does 21st-century ballet look like? For The Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America program, principle dancer and celeb ballerina Misty Copeland, 34, and 29-year-old New York City Ballet dancer and choreographer-on-the-rise Justin Peck were invited to select works that represented ballet in America now. Copeland is, of course, most famous for being the first African American principle dancer at American Ballet Theatre, one of our nation’s top companies, while Peck was tapped and nurtured from the corps de ballet at New York City Ballet and has grown his choreographic output in recent years. So the question posed: What does American ballet look like to these still young artists at the height of their careers? Two programs at The Kennedy Center Opera House, Copeland’s April 19-21, and Peck’s April 22-23, provided their very personal answers.
In its fourth iteration over nearly a decade, this Ballet Across America threw off the tutus and pink tights, the Chopin and Tchaikovsky scores, and the corps of look-alike ballerinas for bare legs and chests – for the men – jazz music, mini-skirts, loose hair, and music that included scores by new hot commodities Ben Folds and Joby Talbot, a sultry and socially aware selection of American jazz, and a rollicking playlist of pop songs by the late David Bowie. This was not your grandmother’s ballet.
Copeland’s program began with a neo-classical beauty, the Nashville Ballet’s “Concerto,” a recent work by artistic director Paul Vasterling that demonstrated the clear, clean lines of 20th-century ballet icon George Balanchine. But “Concerto” was lighter, less severe, with some jazzy kicks and forward hip leans that freed up the dancers from Balanchinean severity. The commissioned score by Ben Folds, played on piano on stage by Joel Ayau with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in the pit, brought vim and brightness to the dancing. In his solo Judson Veach seemed like a 19th-century Romantic hero lost in a 21st-century world lacking swans or fairies, while solos by Kayla Rowser and Mollie Sansone emphasized quick allegro footwork and gooey undulating torsos. But Vasterling excels in his large group choreography: the dancers clad in black practice clothes – another Balanchine nod — form and reassemble in lines, diagonals and smaller groupings in a shifting landscape of bodies propelled in space, demonstrating the company’s versatility and fluidity.
British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon also takes his cue from Balanchine (he danced with New York City Ballet, Balanchine’s company, in the 1990s and became the company’s first resident choreographer in 2001), putting his own 21st century spin on his many beloved works, particularly his pas de deux. Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise,” on Peck’s program, was danced exquisitely by nine dancers from the Joffrey Ballet. Joby Talbot’s score for orchestra, which he named “The Dying Swan,” is delicate, romantic but forward-thinking as was Wheeldon’s choreography. His duets favor intricate intertwining partnerships performed with slippery elegance. As a female dancer is turned by her partner, her sweeping leg and swooning torso meld then the two ease into the floor only to rise again with effortless grace. Wheeldon, too, sets up trios where a pair of men lift, support and exchange their female partner in unison and in tandem creating luxurious kaleidoscopes of moving braided bodies.
And, briefly Paris Opera Ballet director, Benjamin Millepied and his L.A. Dance Project, opened Peck’s program with his 2014 work, “Hearts & Arrows,” a ever shifting landscape of arms and legs, torsos and footwork set to a minimalist score by Philip Glass (“Mishima”) that kept the dancers in a constant palette of push and pull, running forward and backward, clumping and thrusting a dancer out of that group. It felt like a tug of war with the musical score, unfortunately costumed in black plaid mini-skirts and bike shorts that cut the visual look of the line on eight dancers’ bodies.
Peck’s duet from his 2012 full-length “Year of the Rabbit,” danced to a stringy score by Sufjan Stevens, updates classical and neoclassical vocabulary with some twists – instead of bent knees in a “fish dive,” dancer Patricia Delgado of Miami City Ballet, scissored her legs in a more extended pose. Here, too, antithetical to old-school classical ballet, Peck has his dancers use the floor, but the piece lacks the intimacy and proficiency of Wheeldon’s more mature pas de deux.
Just two of the works touched on relevant social messages – Jeremy McQueen’s “Madiba,” is a biographical sketch in ballet of Nelson Mandela’s life, while Kyle Abraham’s “The Gettin’” dealt with race issues, drawing on 20th-century “Whites Only” signage and projected photos and videos from the Civil Rights era to the Black Lives Matter movement. Inspired by Max Roach’s 1960 jazz album-cum-protest piece, We Insist! the live music, arranged by Robert Glasper, was performed by Vincente Archer, Kris Bowers, Otis Brown III and singer Charenee Wade, who began with a wail and a shriek, before reciting indignities African Americans faced.
Abraham’s movement language nods toward ballet technique, but he and his company are modern dancers, and that shows in the weightedness as they allow their bodies to connect to the ground with visceral strength. Drawing from freewheeling swing dance, jazz, and even Brazilian capoeira as much as from modern and contemporary, “The Gettin’” is a tour de force of human determination. Abraham’s six dancers bop, hop, dive, roll, jut their hips, whip their heads and fly across the stage with abandon. The loose but not careless energy is captivating and the power and punch motivating the movement sears, for it is a dance that deals with indignities suffered and oppression overthrown. It was curious that Peck selected this work for a “ballet”-centric program for it has its roots in 20th-century modern dance for sure, but it proved to be the most important, or at least salient work on the two evenings.
“Madiba,” the Mandela ballet, choreographed by journeyman dancemaker Jeremy McQueen for his self-created Black Iris Project, was less successful in conveying an equally compelling set of events. McQueen unfortunately boxed himself in by limiting himself to ballet technique and ballet mime – relics of the 19th century – to tell a compelling truth of the late 20th-century. Mandela’s life story is gripping, alas McQueen’s ballet was not. The power of a singular man who spent 27 years in prison for leading a non-violent movement to overthrow apartheid South Africa is inspiring, but using ballet mannerisms and steps didn’t seem to be the right way to go. Raising a fist while in arabesque en pointe feels neither like truth nor power. It suggests a pose, a perfect balance. And while the cast danced valiantly, including Washington Ballet’s Andile Ndlovu as Mandela, the strictures of ballet on such a gut-wrenching life story simply didn’t work.
Copeland closed her program with a riot of pop-star pulchritude. Dwight Rhoden’s “Stardust” was everything a piece using David Bowie’s hits needs to be: outrageous, outlandish, outre, overtly sexy, over the top and open to all movement. Yes, the women, and one man, danced on pointe, but nothing they did looked anything like staid ballet technique. Legs splayed and flew, hips jutted, chests pumped, and dancers, their faces, chests, arms and legs covered in glitter body paint pumped it up in outlandish body conscious costumes by Christine Darch, jumping, crashing, leaping, strutting, they threw their bodies around the stage with breathtaking abandon. I am not typically a fan of rock and pop ballets because usually the choreography isn’t free enough and the dancers can’t abandon the rigidity of the form for the freedom the music – and the ideas — demand. But Complexions Contemporary Ballet under Rhoden and Desmond Richardson’s artistic direction finds that edgy release without taking it all too seriously.
It’s a fearless romp into the heart of kitschy, fun pop, with a loving nod to Bowie’s memorable pop star persona. What a way to end a program: an aural mixtape of the 1970s and ‘80s with songs like “Changes,” “Life on Mars,” “Space Oddity,” “Modern Love,” and “Young Americans,” that looked and felt fresh and modern. And made everyone want to dance.
Shockingly, across the two Ballet Across America programs of dances selected by Copeland and Peck, none of the choreographers were women. In 2017, that is more than mere oversight. It is malpractice. The issue of women leaders – as artistic directors and choreographers – in the still rarified world of ballet needs to be addressed. Both evenings I attended, this question was posed to the artistic directors in the post-performance discussion. And while they had some good, even-handed responses and all agreed it is a problem ballet as a field needs to solve, it is an unconscionable oversight that The Kennedy Center programmers let two young artists curate evenings that still don’t look like America. Without women’s voices wholly expressed in the choreographic realm, Ballet Across America 2017 stifles half the population.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Ballet Across America, curated by Misty Copeland and Justin Peck, played from April 19-23, 2017 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to future events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.
“Concerto” by Paul Vasterling, Nashville Ballet:
“Fool’s Paradise” by Christopher Wheeldon:
Video: “Now More Than Ever” by Ezra Hurwitz