The Guardian covered it last Saturday. The word gadded about among the chattering classs. Irina Kolesnikova, doyenne of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, delivered the latest diatribe against ballet companies for their inhumane treatment of dancers. It’s hardly new, the accusation. And it appeals to our tawdry tabloid instincts that underneath this oh si beau monde of pretty people in satin shoes, all is punishing regimen, exploitation and body abuse. I do wonder what a happiness index among ballet companies would reveal. I have, in any case, a strong suspicion that The Washington Ballet, under the charismatic directorship of Septime Webre, would do well – in fact remarkably well. Can you fake the sort of collective joy they breathe? I’m not sure one can. I’d like to think, in any case, that it’s for real, that it runs deep in their creative blood-stream.

Venus Villa and Brooklyn Mack © Theo Kossenas | Media4artists
Venus Villa and Brooklyn Mack
© Theo Kossenas | Media4artists
It seems especially apposite to mention this for the pop-ballet fusion programme entitled  ‘Bowie and Queen’ represents Webre’s last show as Company and Artistic Director, a position he has held for 17 years. He describes the journey as a Glorious Ride, and one can’t help being caught up in his boyish and infectious enthusiasm, visible in the way he bounces on the stage before the start of each performance, visible too in his emotion on the first night of his last run, on receiving the warmest of standing ovations from the audience. If he communicates this to an audience, what must he not communicate to his dancers?

The spirit of Bowie lived again in Edwaard Liang’s Dancing in the Street, a company première. My companion, a committed Bowie fan, was perhaps rightfully disappointed by the fact that the chosen three songs were his early folksy easy-pleasers, not his more experimental material. In short, not the real form-bending ‘Bowie’. But the compensation was the original music interludes of Gabriel Gaffney Smith, a sort of homage to both Bowie’s kick-ass stage persona and his more introspective side. It was choreographed as a boy-girl street scene: who among the city masses, the fleeting encounters, is the one? And what will men do to get the attention of the girls? Preen, pop their collars, all sorts of cavorting apparently. Jonathan Jordan struck the perfect balance between anarchy and self-consciousness. I'm always a massive fan of Gian Carlo Perez. Not that the girls were behindhand either. Venus Villa impressed with her feathery lightness of form. Ballerinas dancing rock is an attractive juxtaposition. Away with the straight-laced. Here they bend the rules and go free form. But they keep that hallmark rigour because you don’t lose the effect of 1000s of hours of classical training just because you are, well, dancing on the street.

© Theo Kossenas | Media4artists
© Theo Kossenas | Media4artists
The second half was explosively good. With music by Queen and choreography by Trey McIntyre, a passionate believer in dance as a medium to explore what it means to be human, Mercury Half-Life could hardly have been danced with greater dynamism. The simple white costumes – tennis dresses, shorts, jackets, with the occasional flash of red lining, and the fluorescent pinpoints of light against a plain background, were crowning concomitant to a veritable tour de force of movement and position. What twists, turns, pulsations and gyrations did they not indulge in to a virtual cavalcade of Queen’s greatest hits from ‘We will Rock you’ to Another One Bites the Dust’. Daniel Roberge was an ultra-stylish and witty lead; Maki Onuki deftly lithe; Andile Ndlovu and Brooklyn Mack powerfully athletic.  These were just a few highlights plucked from a dazzling whole, in which all ten dancers gave their all. Small wonder that some showed signs of exhaustion towards the end, but when the will to dance is still so throbblingly present, why should we fault them for the common burden of humanity?

This was the kind of dancing, in short, that had the audience on the edge of their seats, wanting it to go on and on – the kind of dance that makes you feel different somehow, joyous, more alive. The Washington Ballet are not the largest nor the greatest ballet company in America. But they have something to say that is very much their own, and they state it repeatedly, with greater or lesser success, but always with passionate commitment, in all that I have seen of them to date. And tonight was, to my mind, the most successful experiment of all. For they aim at something more enduring than perfection of form, something nobler than mere technical infallibility: they aim at nothing less than the communication of the sheer joy of physicality, in all its irrepressible abundance. And so, bravo to them. And bravo to the company director who has brought them to this place.