Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC; January 30, 2014

Carmel Morgan

“Bird’s Nest”, “PRISM”, “Blue Until June”

Corey Landolt and Maki Onuki in PRISM Photo © Paul Weger

Corey Landolt and Maki Onuki in PRISM
Photo © Paul Weger

The District of Columbia has a rich history when it comes to jazz and blues (Duke Ellington was a local jazz pioneer), and the city still celebrates these soulful styles of music.  Septime Webre, Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet (TWB), wisely capitalized on this musical background when putting together ‘The Jazz/Blues Project.”  Combining ballet with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and powerhouse vocalist E. Faye Butler may not seem like a natural choice, but it produced a popular program that drew together dance and music fans alike.  Bringing in new audience members is always an important task, and I suspect there were many who purchased tickets to see TWB for the first time due to the unique mixture of jazz, blues, and ballet.  Webre works hard at offering performances that DC audiences will be primed to embrace.  The fact that he’s been at the helm of TWB for nearly 15 years speaks to his talent at assembling diverse performances that appeal to a wide range of people, both those who cling to classical favorites and those who may not be familiar with ballet but find something intriguing about TWB’s contemporary shows.

Live music is certainly a treat, but it can be a risky endeavor for a dance company.  For example, working with musicians is expensive, it requires significant coordination, and there’s the possibility that the music may overpower, outshine, or distract from the dancing.  In “The Jazz/Blues Project,” the musicians definitely enhanced program, and thankfully they did so while allowing the dancers to remain the focus of the evening.  The Howard University Jazz Ensemble, directed by Fred Irby III, was tucked in one corner toward the front of the stage area, and the vocalists stood unobtrusively in the opposite corner with just enough light to register their presence.  The ensemble opened the night with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the famous Billy Strayhorn jazz standard that was the Duke Ellington orchestra’s signature song.  That got everyone in the mood for the dancing to come.

The first piece on the program, “Bird’s Nest,” choreographed by the San Francisco Ballet’s Val Caniparoli, featured various groupings of dancers moving to the tunes of Charlie “Bird” Parker.  Set in a 1940s New York City jazz club, the dancers paired off and squared off in battles of the heart, with make ups, breakups, and everything in between.  They chased, they pushed, pulled, spun, and dipped, and even collapsed bouncily to the floor and up again.  The lighting design by Clifton Taylor, and costume and set design by Sandra Woodall, evoked a romantic atmosphere accompanied by candlelight.  Glowing orbs hovered on the scrim behind the dancers.  The men wore pale dress shirts, pants, and suspenders, and the women wore tea length gowns in shades that reminded me of Monet’s water lily paintings – teal green, watery blue, and chartreuse.  The delicately layered skirts gently swirled around the dancers’ pretty legs.  Somehow, however, although the women’s costumes were supremely beautiful, they didn’t match well with the jazz theme.

In addition, for me at least, the dancing in “Bird’s Nest” didn’t capture Parker’s music well, either.  The movement, overall, seemed too refined to be paired with jazz.  And the dancers’ attempts at loosening up weren’t terribly successful.  As they hunched over snapping their fingers, they looked every bit the classically trained dancers they are rather than resembling denizens of a smoky, alcohol-fueled jazz club.  It’s not easy to get down in pointe shoes (all of the works in “The Jazz/Blues Project” had the women en pointe).  Among the women, Maki Onuki may have had an advantage, as she was the only female with her hair not tied up.  With her flowing locks, she had an air of abandon as well as sexy strength in her duet to “Lover Man” with Luis Torres.  Straight as an arrow, she slid down his body past his hip on a sharp diagonal.  Brooklyn Mack, too, fared better at getting jazzy, but his crisp lines remained those of a ballet dancer.  Dancing to “Bloomdido,” he energetically executed tight jumps and joyously caroused to the claps and cheers of his fellow dancers and the audience, until he slumped flat to the floor and the curtain fell.

I felt a similar mismatch between the music and dancing in Trey McIntyre’s work, “Blue Until June,” which was inspired by the recordings of Etta James.  On the whole, “Blue Until June” seemed too quirky and light-hearted for its pairing with gravelly blues music.  McIntyre has a knack for making accessible works that remind me of soap operas.  He’s good at making works that feel charming, casual, and cutesy without being cloying.  McIntyre also has a distinctive choreographic style.  His women have arms that tend to hinge like a doll.  They also tend to have a look of surprise about them as they’re lifted in the air.  Their limbs are often stiff, and their eyes wide.  There’s humor in this, but the look can get tiresome.

“Blue Until June” had the sultry flavor of late summer in the South.  Woodall’s costumes included halter dresses for the ladies in peach and lavender tones, with a tie-dyed look about the skirts.  At the beginning of “Blue Until June,” Morgann Rose stood with her back to the audience, her arms bent like goalposts, in the middle of a rocky landscape.  Behind the hills a smattering of dots that might have been stars in the Milky Way stood out from the dark (lighting design again by Taylor).  The “landscape” soon was shoved aside to reveal dancers on the floor who had been hiding beneath a black cover.

In “Blue Until June,” the standout performer was Jonathan Jordan.  Jordan exuded charisma as he danced to “One for My Baby.”  He wore an open short-sleeved button down shirt and tight, worn jeans, which suited his heart-melting relaxed style.  Jordan has boy band good looks, and when he’s at his best, he looks like he’s moving on autopilot – boundless and full of fun.  The duet between Jared Nelson and Daniel Roberge to “Fool That I Am,” a mini version of Brokeback Mountain, provided the most serious, least cheesy moments.  TWB premiered “Blue Until June” in 2000, and the male/male relationship might have a different resonance now that gay marriage is legal in the District.

The one world premiere on the program was “PRISM,” choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to Keith Jarrett’s remarkable “The Köln Concert.”  Initially, when I saw that the music for “PRISM” was not live, I worried that it would suffer from this fact.  Not so.  “The Köln Concert” is beloved in large part because it can’t really be reproduced.  It’s a 1975 concert recording of a 28-minute piano improvisation that became the best-selling solo album in jazz history.  In other words, the music couldn’t have been played live anyway.  “PRISM” was a triumph in my view because it truly reflected the beauty and complexity of the music and its multiple moods.  “PRISM” is the kind of work that takes your breath away and leaves you with an ache when it’s done because it’s over.  I’m sure Jarrett’s fans feel the same way about his music.

I found “PRISM” fresh, stunning, and epic.  I think most critics hope to see something new and inspiring every time they enter a theater, and Lopez Ochoa hit it out of the ballpark with “PRISM.”   I’m not sure whether Lopez Ochoa’s background (she’s half Colombian half Belgian) is related to why her piece struck me as so ingenious.  Am I more apt to appreciate a foreign choreographer’s work because I long for originality, and as an American I see a lot of works by American-born choreographers that resemble each other?  I don’t know, but I’m quite sure I was not alone in considering “PRISM” the winner of the night.  People all around me were gasping and groaning with delight.  It was difficult to tell, at first, the difference from the occasional exultant voices on the recording and the contented vocalizations of the audience.  When the dancers erupted with ballet vocabulary toward the end of “PRISM” — “Chassé,” “Piqué,” I sighed with satisfaction, because it seemed so right.

Torres, who is nearing his retirement from TWB, anchored “PRISM,” and opened it with a commanding and passionate solo.  He appeared in a black turtleneck, tight black shorts, and black socks.  (Lopez Ochoa designed the costumes).  As he took the stage at the beginning of Jarrett’s improvisational journey, Torres seemed to symbolize an awakening.  For some reason, the black torso, bare legs and black socks brought to mind a musical note, embodied by Torres, which like Jarrett’s actual notes, freely moved around.  Onuki’s appearance added color.  She wore a snug vivid green sleeveless tunic that was cut on an angle.  The lighting too, added color, with a rainbow of wisps against the scrim.  Taylor’s brilliant lighting design played such a big role in “PRISM” that he ended up taking a well deserved bow.

As “The Köln Concert” grew more lively and playful, the lighting in “PRISM” became more colorful.  Likewise, when the music slowed to a trickle, the color drained, in both the lighting and in the costume design.  The costumes during a quieter interlude in the middle of the work changed to black bottoms and a nude top with black lines reaching up like branches.  Fingers of the dancers opened, too, like icy branches, and the movement developed an intense Graham-like quality.  Finally, as “PRISM” came to a close, the lighting grew warmer and the colorful costumes returned.  Like the music itself, the final section of “PRISM” was happy and bright.
I could gush on and on about the dancing.  The shapes made by the bodies were gorgeous beyond belief.  Early in “PRISM,” Kateryna Derechyna was held aloft with one arm.  In an arch she froze magically in mid-air.  Although I never saw the movie “The Matrix,” I imagine this moment was like a moment from the film, only without any help from digital animation. Lopez Ochoa demanded much from TWB’s dancers, and they delivered.  Most impressive, maybe, the dancers channeled the emotion and dynamics of the music through their movement, and they exquisitely conveyed Jarrett’s emotional ride.