Ballet Across America is the bold theme for two special dance programmes this week at the Kennedy Center. Tonight’s performances is curated by Misty Copeland. The aims is to showcase something of the diversity and richness of the contemporary ballet scene in America: Copeland writes of her hope that American ballet will evolve in a way that will ‘embrace what we are and who we are as Americans’. The Kennedy Center celebrating JFK’s centennial has espoused this kind of mission this concert season, and we started right on target, watching the entire Kennedy Center itself become the theatre of performance. Now More than Ever was a video projection, specially commissioned, which showed ballerinas dancing through the various spaces of the Kennedy Center – from the patio to the portico, through the auditorium and onto the stage. The object was to break down barriers in our understanding of performative space.

This was followed by Concerto, an eclectic showcase of styles, choreographed by Paul Vasterling for the Nashville Ballet, set to Ben Folds’ attractive Concerto for Piano and Orchestra – he was there, on the stage, at the piano. Its eclecticism was lightly carried and appealing – tapping into lush romanticism, spiky neoclassicism (think Prokofiev), jazz and something more modern still. Its choreography carried on the musical idiosyncrasies in offsetting the few (often a trio; once a sextet), against the many (the full cast). Our eyes travelled from one to another – they were not boringly matched but blended nicely, and there was a clear sense of relation – when, for example, the company sat around in a junior ballet class circle, or when they converged on an intimate trio space. The coordination at the end of the third movement was a bit raggedy which was a pity in an otherwise engaging performance. Kayla Rowser gave a most striking performance in the second movement. The poise of her head, the suppleness of her form, the lightness and whip-fast reaction were a joy to see. She had a way of not seeming passive when lifted – of always giving the appearance of actively soaring.

I had keenly anticipated Jeremy McQueen’s Madiba from the Black Iris Project. The project, founded in 2016, is a vehicle for celebrating diversity and black history and is the fruit of McQueen’s personal experience and cultural activism. And activist his choreography certainly was. Rather too much so, I thought, at the expense of depth and recollection. Nelson Mandela’s life condescended into 23 minutes does pose challenges, be it said. McQueen opted for a brisk, perpetuum mobile narrative, light of affect (the guards with their Nazi-style ballet seemed more ridiculous than threatening), and sentimental (Winnie got a lot of space – indeed the whole came to a culmination in collective happily-ever-after pas de deux). Andile Ndlovu was adept enough, although the role did not give him chance to develop maturity. Most disappointingly, there was a gaping void at the very heart of the work exemplified most of all by the prison scene. Then one might have expected the choreography and the music to spin off into self-reflection – to probe the depths of what it meant to languish for 27 years, confined behind bars, for a just cause. But no, Mandela was constantly interrupted by vision of people, and was let out in no time at all. All was glossed over, the arms were raised in victory, the people faced the sunset. Should one have greater expectations? In this case, I think the subject begged for more – for something that went underneath the surface, that didn’t remain at the level of a feel-good fairytale.

The highlight of the evening was, unquestionably, the electrifying performance from Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Founded in 1994 by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, the company is at the forefront of fusion dance, blurring and indeed breaking down barriers between styles. Marrying the music of David Bowie to the pulsing robustness of classically-trained dancers not afraid to do something different, Star Dust was exceptionally appealing. It's is a dazzling compilation of movement and expressivity to nine of Bowie’s songs from different periods. Michael Korsch’s superbly intense lighting design enhances the experience of watching sculpted forms punctuate the space about them. The various incarnations of Bowie, Terk Lewis Waters, Andrew Brader, Timothy Stickney, Doug Baum, and, of course Addison Ector were all brilliant showmen, with elastic bodies. Ector in particular drew the eye whenever he appeared – best of all with his transgressive on pointe walk in Space Oddity. So much energy, so much conviction, so much dance: thoroughly enjoyable to watch, and fully deserving of the house ovation. 

Copeland’s real success this evening has been to bring impressive variety to the stage, to give us some inkling of the range of creative forces energizing contemporary ballet, showcasing, if you will, a new canon of the uncanonic.