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The Washington Ballet

Genius!: 'Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes', 'There Where She Loved', 'Nine Sinatra Songs'

by Carmel Morgan

January 31, 2008 -- Harman Center for the Arts, Washington, DC

On Thursday, January 31, 2008, the Washington Ballet’s “Genius!” premiered at Sidney Harman Hall, part of the Harman Center for the Arts, a new theater complex that is home to the Shakespeare Theatre Company.  “Genius!” was an apt title, as it combined in one program the talents of Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon, and Twyla Tharp.  As good as the dancing was, the choreography stole the show.                                                                     

Sidney Harman Hall is a striking venue, with a huge unobstructed glass front that serves as an oversized window looking out onto the streets and sidewalks of DC’s vibrant Penn Quarter neighborhood.  Its modern architecture was a perfect match for the program, which featured distinct works by three renowned contemporary choreographers.  The theater has a very intimate feel.  The seating is such that in the orchestra section, rather than staring up at the dancers’ legs and feet, one is afforded a nicely angled panoramic view.  

First was Mark Morris’s “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” an enigmatic piece to “Etudes for Piano” by Virgil Thomson.  The hands of pianist Glenn Sales dazzlingly danced over the keys, creating dramatic clashes, for a long while before any dancers moved across the stage.  It was a treat simply to listen.  The lights on the stage gradually intensified, and then suddenly a male entered from stage left carrying a female horizontally above his head.  Her body was as straight as a knife, her arms framing her face like a tulip, hands crossed at the wrists, one foot crossed over the other at the ankle, in a pose that became a recurring motif.

The costumes were all white, with the sleeves of the women billowing out a bit.  The floor turned white with the lighting, as did the scrim, resulting in a boxed-in effect. The dancers looked small, almost swallowed by the abundance of white. 

Morris’s movement was typically quirky, taking traditional ballet class elements and adding humorous twists.  The dancers executed the choreography with jumping jack precision; however, they kept the work serious, even during moments that should have been full of joy and whimsy.  Their faces looked blank as each tilted a head and swung one arm straight up to an ear like a lopsided helicopter blade.  It seemed that the pianist had more fun and more energy than the dancers did.  Only at the end of the piece did the dancing, music, and lighting truly converge.  Couples crossed the stage in Morris’s lovely opening pose, and as the lights dimmed, a lone female, a broken doll, lay in that same pose with a male kneeling not far away.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved,” performed to the music of Frederic Chopin and Kurt Weill, was next.  Two female vocalists, soprano Kate Vetter Cain and mezzo soprano Shelley Waite, flanked either side of the stage, alternately singing songs about love.  Glenn Sales again provided the piano accompaniment.  Wheeldon’s work was elegant and contemplative.  His choreography was both classical and innovative, with many moments of delightful surprise.  In one pairing, the woman literally leapt atop the man’s back, in another she rolled up his legs and into a lift from the floor, in another she was manipulated by four men – each with a limb in his hands.          

The dancers, costumed in rich shades of purple and green, showed much more emotion in “There Where She Loved” than in “Drink.”  In particular, guest artist Michele Jimenez, a former Washington Ballet company member, got steamy.  Jimenez and her partner Luis R. Torres performed the final dance to Weill’s “Je ne t’aime pas.”  Passion was evocatively displayed in fast, tango-like sequences, with Jimenez literally hanging and spinning, suspended from Torres’s neck.  Here and throughout the work, as one woman walked off stage, another woman entered, perhaps symbolizing the cyclical nature of love.

Finally, there was Twyla Tharp’s timeless “Nine Sinatra Songs.”  This was the hit of the evening.  A gigantic disco ball threw slivers of color into the audience as pairs of dancers seamlessly swept by, the women in glittery gowns courtesy of designer Oscar de la Renta.  “Nine” has the feel of musical theater or an ice-skating extravaganza.  It was lively, exciting, sappy, sweet, and completely engaging.  Erin Mahoney-Du and Torres were terrific as the lovable drunken couple stumbling together to the lyrics of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”  Indeed, their dancing was as intoxicating as the liquor they had supposedly imbibed.  They oozed charm, as did Brianne Bland and Jason Hartley dancing to “Somethin’ Stupid.”   

One could tell from the dancers’ broad smiles that they enjoy this piece.  Tharp’s upbeat choreography certainly suits the company well.  Their jubilant performance successfully captured the spirit of Sinatra.  It made me want to slap on some heels and dash out onto the ballroom floor.  That’s genius!   

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