It is the more usual choice for the Washington Ballet to show in the intimate setting of the Eisenhower Theater, which is what made last night’s choice of the Opera House particularly welcome, as a mark of confidence and indeed coming of age (they are coming to the end of their 40th anniversary season). Indeed it was a case of anniversaries all around, as this very week, the Kennedy Center is culminating the centennial of J.F.K’s birth, and marking the event on the 29th of May with a series of celebratory performances.

Sarah Steele in Frontier
© Theo Kossenas | media4artists

It was fitting therefore that new Artistic Director Julie Kent’s first-ever commissioned work, entitled Frontier, and choreographed by Ethan Stiefel, takes its inspirations from the great dreams of the Patron-President – specifically his speech to the US Congress in 1961, when he called for an ambitious space program to win, citing that it was time for a ‘great new American enterprise’. Stiefel has produced a piece of dance which is an effective vehicle for seeing ballet in space age terms. Some might critique the sentimental element, and might prefer something removed from the clichés of a love story. The astronaut taken from the ranks of the ASCAN (astronaut candidates), a woman (the pliable Sarah Steele) leaves her husband (an unusually restrained Gian Carlo Perez) to go on her extra-terrestrial voyage, and returns to him afterwards (we do descend into something a little trite here), but still with her eyes on the horizon at the end. For all the coziness, there is a sort of justification to the narrative, if one thinks of it as a way of humanizing the space-age story. The ardent pas de deux showed the terror of facing the unknown: the hand-stretch and break-apart gesture symbolized the necessity of personal parting so as to push through to a new frontier. It also put into sharper focus the less human aspects of space-technology: the white-uniformed techies who transformed Steele into her role as astronaut, the body enclosed and limited to repetitive, inelegant movements, in the spacecraft a simple bubble, illuminated.

Sarah Steele and Gian Carlo Perez in Frontier
© Theo Kossenas | media4artists

There was a moving solo when the astronaut makes a landing, slinky movements, feeling forward into this new strange world, testing her pointes, although there was material that could have been pushed, choreographically speaking, into a more exploratory realm. I thought, for instance, that there would be more play on the idea of the weightless body in space. Adam Crystal’s scoring was superb, making use of mesmerizing rhythms and melodies, surreal solo violin, and all was set off by the compelling video projections and staging (Dmitrij Simkin). 

Next on the program was Antony Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas. The ballet features an all-Fragonard backdrop, with fluttering, shadowy foliage against which played out insincere and sincere romance. That the wrong couples end up with each other is refreshing in being unconventional: there is something dystopian in the prospect of living unhappily ever after. I thought the performance missed the full portrayal of the yearnings and the emotions it contains. Eunwon Lee, though sincere as Caroline the bride-to-be, did not milk all the emotions inherent in her ambivalent situation; I’m not sure that the chemistry between her and her lover, Corey Landolt convinced. Kateryna Derechyna, as the Episode in the Groom’s Past, had lots of fire, however, and vitality in her every move.

Maki Onuki in The Dream
© Theo Kossenas | The Washington Ballet

The highlight of the evening, in terms of the sheer capacity to delight, was Ashton’s The Dream. Here The Washington Ballet came into their ebullient own, capturing the fey and abundant supernatural and natural life of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Andile Ndlovu was a superbly eye-catching Puck, that ‘shrewd and knavish sprite’. His rhythm was brilliant; his leaps and prancing buoyant; his energy dominated whenever he was on stage. Maki Onuki, with her crisp movements, made for a refined Titania, all the more amusing then her association with rustic Bottom, a rambunctious Daniel Roberge, who had lovely footwork, complete with his ass’s head. Nicole Graniero was a particularly attractive nag as Helena. Anthony Dowell’s staging, along with Susan Jones, was full of Merry England green foliage, and was a joy to behold.