The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater

Washington, DC

October 10, 2016

Carmel Morgan

Damian Woetzel probably isn’t a household name, particularly if you’re not from a dance household. A former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet (NYCB), he is “curating” and directing a series of installments at the Kennedy Center inspired by shared themes that mix performers across various genres. DEMO: Heroes was the first of the series I have attended.

Woetzel has used many of the same artists in different programs. In DEMO: Time, Woetzel featured soprano Jacqueline Bolier, and Robert Fairchild, a current NYCB principal dancer, and in DEMO: Place, Woetzel included Lil Buck, star of a Memphis street dance style called jookin’, and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Kate Davis. In this round, Bolier, Fairchild, Lil Buck, and Davis all appear again. I’m not sure whether seeing these same performers felt recycled to those who attended the prior performances.  

In addition to the aforementioned artists, Woetzel selected violist Daniel Foster; dancer Jared Grimes (who tapped); former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer (and NYCB soloist) Carla Korbes; author, curator, and Harvard professor Sarah Lewis; pianist Glenn Sales; jazz prodigy Matthew Whitaker; and MusiCorps Wounded Warrior Band. This was an eclectic and talented bunch, to be sure. I’m sorry to report, however, that for me, all the talent sort of fizzled. It was like an unsuccessful veggie burger — the ingredients themselves were reasonably delicious, but they didn’t meld and hold together well. Perhaps Woetzel was going for a mishmash of things on the plate? If so, that’s what he delivered. Yet I was hoping for more cohesion.

What DEMO: Heroes reminded me of was a Christmas variety special hosted by any number of popular singers. These television programs have the same formula. The singer has his or her famous friends perform short pieces, and the singer even joins in occasionally.  The singer chats with the friends, swapping stories, and makes things feel casual and intimate. And it’s completely cheesy and fails to actually inspire the holiday feelings the show pushes so hard to achieve. You’re left wanting to change the channel.

Alas, despite Woetzel’s efforts and the charm of many of the performers, I was restless and occasionally bored. Also, as a dance fan, I couldn’t help but want more dance, and less conversation. There were too many morsels, and the dance morsels felt incomplete and trivialized in the context of the entire evening.

Lil Buck with Kate Davis paying tribute to David Bowie, photo by Teresa Wood

Lil Buck with Kate Davis paying tribute to David Bowie, photo by Teresa Wood

The theme of heroes is a good one, and worthy of exploration, certainly. The evening began with a duet between Kate Davis and Lil Buck that was unannounced in the program. Davis has one of those sweet bouncy little girl voices and with her relatively short stature and heavy bangs, she looks considerably younger than her 25 years. Lil Buck, at 28, is a contemporary of Davis, but he comes across as far older and wiser than his age. Davis sang Heroes by recently departed icon David Bowie — absolutely an appropriate song for the evening given the theme. The collaboration between Davis and Lil Buck, though, was awkward. Lil Buck tipped around in his white high-top sneakers and wriggled his arms. He backed up to and skittered around Davis as she childishly crooned. The product looked improvised and lacked oomph.

Much of the rest of the program was awkward, too. Some of the artists and their presentations just didn’t seem to relate to one another well, despite the unifying theme. Fairchild, who has old school Hollywood good looks, definitely is a wonder to watch. He danced a tribute to one of his heroes, Gene Kelly, and was oh so smooth. Then Fairchild and Woetzel danced an entertaining excerpt from Fancy Free, in tribute to Jerome Robbins, former NYCB Ballet Master, and former NYCB principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise. The names of Fred Astaire and, of course, George Balanchine, were tossed out as dance heroes, as well.

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Robert Fairchild with Damian Woetzel paying tribute to Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Jacques d’Amboise, photo by Teresa Wood

Later in the program, Carla Korbes, accompanied by DC’s esteemed pianist Glenn Sales, danced Martha Graham’s monumental Lamentation, and accompanied by violist Daniel Foster, danced Balanchine’s solo for Suzanne Farrell, Elegie. The works were well performed but lost their grandeur and gravitas in the variety show format. Jared Grimes named Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr., as heroes of his, and amiably and adeptly tapped. Subsequently, Woetzel, by way of introduction, foolishly asked what if Sammy ran into Gene and there was a song. The trio of Davis, Fairchild, and Grimes that followed was a clunky concoction that grated on my nerves, especially Davis’s ukulele.

Carla Korbes in Martha Graham's Lamentation, photo by Teresa Wood

Carla Korbes in Martha Graham’s Lamentation, photo by Teresa Wood

Lil Buck appeared most comfortable when he danced on his own. In fact, he lit up the theater with his grace and fire. His heroes, refreshingly, were Memphis jookin’ legends, not persons out of a dance textbook. Lil Buck, at his best, has liquid feet and also feet of steel. He glided across the floor like it was ice and elevated to his toes like veteran ballerinas.          

15-year old jazz artist Matthew Whitaker, who is blind, understandably called out Stevie Wonder and Oscar Peterson as his heroes. To my untrained ears, his performance sounded stiff at first, and I found his relentlessly tapping foot distracting. Gradually, however, he relaxed into the music. Jacqueline Bolier, who predictably cited Renee Fleming as her hero, recounted having met Fleming when she was just 13 years old (Fleming is also hosting a performance series at the Kennedy Center and recently has worked closely with Woetzel). Bolier, with a curtain of long blonde hair, has a lovely voice, but the interview conducted by Woetzel, standing on stage with her, was once more, awkward. Woetzel’s interview of Korbes, right after she danced, fared even less well. The interviews, rather than enhancing the show, broke the flow of the performances, which maybe was their purpose, but resulted in frustration on my part. I just wanted the show to keep on moving.

Carla Korbes in George Balanchine's Elegie, photo by Teresa Wood

Carla Korbes in George Balanchine’s Elegie, photo by Teresa Wood

In a very different vein, Sarah Lewis put together a collection of photos and quotes in tribute to John F. Kennedy, the namesake of the Kennedy Center. He was a true advocate for artists and equated artists with heroes. I agree with that sentiment. The images, though, didn’t focus on artists alone, and it was difficult to concentrate on reading quotes while a speech of Kennedy extolling artists played.

The evening closed with MusiCorps Wounded Warrior Band. The band is composed of injured veterans. Rather than the quality of the performance, the heart of those artists is what captured my attention. They could not rival a top band, but their music was genuinely touching, and of all the performers they struck me as best exemplifying the heroes theme. I deeply felt the comfort and healing that exuded from them as they sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Instead of ending on a high note, though, Woetzel’s choice to have the other performers join the band brought things down. The rendition of America the Beautiful felt forced, and the final song, with different performers randomly dancing and singing, was silly and sloppy rather than uplifting. I admit, however, that many fellow audience members appeared quite happy, and I may have been in the minority in wishing that the performance, overall, had been of a higher caliber.