Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC; October 25, 2014 (m)

Carmel Morgan

Ayano Kimura and Andile Ndlovu in "Petite Mort," photo © Dean Alexander

Ayano Kimura and Andile Ndlovu in “Petite Mort,” photo © Dean Alexander

For its season opener, The Washington Ballet (TWB) premiered three strong contemporary works: Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,” Hans van Manen’s “5 Tangos,” and Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.”  These works not only challenged the company but also played to its strengths.

“Polyphonia” is basically a Balanchine knockoff.  The simple costuming (no costume credits were given in the program, although the notes indicated the costumes were borrowed from the Boston Ballet), and the emphasis on gorgeous lines as well as on playful twists of classical ballet forms definitely recalls Balanchine’s “leotard ballets.”  While “Polyphonia” can stand on its own as a contemporary ballet, in my opinion, Wheeldon’s choreography does not come close to topping that of Balanchine.  There are moments of splendor, however, that make it a worthwhile addition to TWB’s repertoire.

The dancers wore typical dance wear, with a belt added at the waist for the women.  I didn’t particularly like the the sometimes jarring music by Gyorgy Ligeti, but pianist Cameron Grant, playing live, performed so beautifully, even placed in a corner to the side of the stage he stole some of the limelight from the dancers.  The original lighting design by Mark Stanley, recreated by Penny Jacobs, flattered the dancers, particularly in the parts when rich smoky shadows appeared on the scrim, dancing along with the cast.

As for the dancing, there were many moments involving balance, extensions, and gymnastic tricks in “Polyphonia.”  And there were purposefully awkward moments thrown in, too.  Dancers bent over placing their hands upon the floor as if to scrub it, then tucked a single leg tightly behind them, foot to rear, looking like odd birds seeking dinner in the sand.  With arms straight out in front them, dancers with flexed wrists opened and closed, doing a gesture that resembled the snapping of crocodile jaws.  Seen repeatedly were men holding female partners aloft.  The women’s bodies were stiff as a board, face up, making a horizontal line as if they were trays being carried by waitstaff.

One benefit of living in the same city for a number of years is getting to witness the development of local dancers who likewise stick around for a while.  Brooklyn Mack has grown tremendously during his time with TWB, and he continues to reach new heights.  In “Polyphonia,” along with Maki Onuki, who also impressively continues to blossom, he captured my gaze.  His body sang with musicality, delicacy, and control that I don’t remember seeing before.  While he has always been a powerful performer, he’s elevated his level of artistry lately.  The same can be said for Onuki, who now throws her whole heart into everything she dances.  She was utterly breathtaking when held at her waist, bent in half with her nose to her knees, her legs kicked back behind her and arched over her head.

Maki Onuki and Brooklyn Mack in "Polyphonia," Photo © Dean Alexander

Maki Onuki and Brooklyn Mack in “Polyphonia,” Photo © Dean Alexander

“5 Tangos,” which like it title suggests utilizes five tango compositions (by Astor Piazzolla), had the dancers turning on their ballroom flair, but it fell a little flat.  The exception for me was  Francesca Dugarte, who my eyes were glued to when she was on the stage.  Perhaps Dugarte’s South American roots (she’s originally from Venezuela) helped her feel more at home blending the heat of tango with the more typically sedate precision of classical ballet.  Her eyes seared, and she crisply flipped her head from side to side.  Aurora Dickie, in the lead role, also did a good job, but somehow Dugarte, for me, appeared the most comfortable in this fusion piece.  As for the men, Andile Ndlovu, in a solo, showed off an unbelievably suave saunter and jumped high into the air, much to the delight of audience who awarded him with heavy applause.

It probably goes without saying that it would have been nice to have live music for “5 Tangos.”  The red and black costumes (by Jean-Paul Vroom, courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Ballet) were what one might imagine for a tango piece, but I wished they’d been spicier.  Tango dancing clearly served as the inspiration for “5 Tangos,” but the work had less tango elements than I’d have liked.  Even so, some of the deconstructed tango sequences worked.  I appreciated the intricate patterns van Manen created.  I found the dynamic of Dickie dancing against a backdrop of six moving men very interesting, but I was frustrated by the male dancers’ lack of perfect timing in their shared steps.  I spotted some flexed feet.  Dancers rested a flexed foot on the heel, toes pointed upward.  I can’t say if this was ahead of its time or shocking in 1977 when “5 Tangos” premiered, but it almost seems obligatory nowadays to make sure a contemporary ballet piece features some flexed feet.

Finally, TWB presented Kylian’s “Petite Mort,” which both the dancers and the audience seemed to favor most.  This is understandable.  I consider “Petite Mort,” a mini masterpiece.  “Petite Mort” exalts the human form while maintaining extensive wit.  I’ve seen it a few times, and I haven’t tired of it.  “Petite Mort” provides amusing choreography, fantastic music (Mozart), stunning costumes (Joke Visser), clever set design (Kylian), and brilliant lighting design (concept by Kylian and realization by Joop Caboort).  There’s nothing to complain about with regard to the dance’s various building blocks, and TWB executed it fairly well.

The costumes and scenic elements that serve as costumes in “Petite Mort” are nothing short of stellar.  The women were clad in ivory and gold-hued corsets, and the men wore matching high-waisted underwear.  In addition, the women cavorted around in strapless black ballgowns with bulbous tiers and pleats.  Only later in “Petite Mort” does the audience discover that the wide black dresses are actually wheeled half shells behind which the women move.

“Petite Mort,” a French term for orgasm, is upfront about its sexuality.  Women on their backs opened their legs above in a wide second position.  Mens’ hands fluttered between female thighs. The flexible silver fencing swords that sliced through the air in the beginning of the work certainly grabbed everyone’s attention.  The acrobatics the men performed with the swords demanded exquisite timing, and in “Petite Mort,” the unison in this section was as it needed to be.  So, too, was the timing right on track as the dancers’ limbs beat in time to the music of plucked strings.  In the partnering, though, there were moments when things looked hard that should have appeared effortless.

It’s always a mark of good choreography, I think, when you are disappointed that a work has ended and you’re left longing for more.  “Petite Mort” does that to me every time.