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Ballet West

'The Four Temperaments', 'Grand Synthesis', 'Sinfonietta'

by Carmel Morgan

August 23 , 2011 -- Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Filene Center, Vienna, VA

August 23, 2011, was a memorable date for the Washington, DC area, and for much of the East Coast, because of an earthquake. The Washington Monument suffered damage, as did the National Cathedral. But, at Wolf Trap, the evening went off as usual. As people’s nerves were rattled by the rare shaking earlier in the day, it was especially nice to sit back, munch on a picnic meal, and then take in the scheduled Ballet West performance in Wolf Trap’s much-loved outdoor ampitheater.

The program looked to be one that would soothe the collective frayed nerves – fan favorites “The Four Temperaments” and “Sinfonietta” bookended the show. “The Four Temperaments” (4Ts) however, as performed by Ballet West, was not what I expected. As someone who has seen a lot of dance, I forever see the brightest talents in certain roles. The 4Ts is no exception. In my mind, I can’t help but see the strongest dancers in this Balanchine masterpiece. So beloved is this work to me (and to many others) that while I enjoy seeing it repeatedly, I do not enjoy seeing it tampered with. And Ballet West appeared to have done some tampering, particularly with the lighting, which was more bold and colorful than I remember previously witnessing. The effect was unfortunately rather unpleasant, perhaps because I like my classics just so, but maybe also because the lighting choices detracted from the choreography. The star of the 4Ts should be the beautiful, deceptively simple dancing, period.

Different things always stand out to me in the 4Ts, and I never fail to experience renewed appreciation of the work. Thankfully, Ballet West’s performance of the 4Ts gave me some small moments of much needed post-earthquake satisfaction. Ah, I sighed, there’s a pleasing pause, a nice lengthening of the arm, etc. But more often, I was sighing for the wrong reasons. Ack, the technique isn’t right, it’s rushed, it lacks command, the dancers are being mechanical. Many of the lifts were full of effort instead of ease. I was reminded of an endless sentence with no punctuation, or a pre-teen in her first pair of high heels, or a well-loved song twisted by a cover band. There was just something awkward about the performance. I longed for more crispness and finesse in the movement, more musicality, and most importantly, more joy. The 4Ts, at its best, is, above all things, full of absolute joy, although a restrained sort of joy. Ballet West’s dancers captured little of the uplifting nature of the piece. Chirps from night bugs, though, added a sweet, calming element not often present.

I was even less enamored with the next work, a 2008 piece called “Grand Synthesis” by
Susan Shields, formerly a member of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, who now teaches at George Mason University in Virginia. I did not feel anything “grand” about “Grand Synthesis,” nor did I get a sense of “synthesis” from it. Following the 4Ts is no easy task, for sure, but nevertheless, I was disappointed. Two distinctively costumed bunches took turns communicating back and forth, one group in pale rainy grays and blues (sadness, slowness), and one in warm yellows, pinks, and tangerines (happiness, quickness). The music, Graham Fitkin’s “Log,” grated my worn-out nerves. As the weird, painful sounds blasted and grew frenetic, the dancing mirrored the modern musical mess. I could hear muffled laughter in the audience, never a good sign. I did like a bit of the choreography that sometimes repeated – women being held aloft, chests up, necks back, and arms down, like sails sticking up and gliding over a choppy sea. But most of the dancing, and the purpose of the piece, was lost on me.

Jiri Kylian’s moving homage to his Czech homeland, “Sinfonietta,” closed the program. Here, Ballet West’s dancers truly excelled. Unlike in the 4Ts, they found the joy inherent in the work. I got the impression that for Kylian’s piece, the company had been transformed by recent rigorous rehearsals. This may be true, as Ballet West premiered “Sinfonietta” in April this year. At any rate, Ballet West in “Sinfonietta” finally triumphed. Where they lacked power earlier in the evening, suddenly the dancers leapt high in the air, sleeves billowing, threw themselves into the floor, then spun on their knees. The dancing displayed a lovely flow and a feeling of travel that echoed Leos Janacek’s score. The choreography showed tons of surprises – arms doubled as legs in a delightful visual pun. The movement highlighted grace as well as athleticism – bodies went upside down, and were flung and caught like handkerchiefs in the wind. By the end, with backs to us, arms rising up toward the sun like Baptist preachers in a moment of praise, the dancers earned the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

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