By his own confession, Carl Orff’s Carmina burana  was difficult for Septime Webre to translate into a ballet. Attracted by its propulsive score and the earthiness of its themes, he acquired in time a vision for it, combining it with elements drawn from Virginia Wolf’s novella, Orlando. The historically-framed romp was evident in Elizabeth ruffs, Victorian frock-coats and 1930s attire. Quite why there was need for an extra narrative to be pinned to the Rabelaisian medieval celebration of wine, women and song, was a puzzle, although for Webre both speak of  ‘the eternal search for love and the cycle of life’.

Webre's <i>Carmina Burana</i> © media4artists, Theo Kossenas
Webre's Carmina Burana
© media4artists, Theo Kossenas
A production dating back to 1999 in its original form, set and lighting design by Regan Kimmel, Chenault Spence and Rob Fabrizio are exceptionally compelling throughout. The curtains opened on an 100-strong choir of grey-cowled monks on three tiers of scaffolding ringed round the stage. There they remained as vocal commentary on the action, the whole surmounted by a massive wheel in which was strapped the star-shaped personification of Fortuna (inspired by Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man), who descended among the whirling, cavorting mortals beneath in some style. The wheel reappeared – indeed came full circle in the finale – with Jonathan Jordan, coiled at the feet of the eternally feminine Fortune, and hoisted to its original height above the stage; as striking a visual as I’ve seen from the The Washington Ballet: the motionless centerpiece over the wild motions of the dancers to Orff’s thrillingly monumental score. The choir – the Cathedral Choral Society and Arlington Childrens’ Choir – after a less than perfect opening (ah! the crucial moment), warmed up nicely, although one does miss the massive voice power that a full complement of singers would have possessed. But it was nonetheless an effective adjunct to the drama of the dance.

As is characteristic for the TWB’s soon-to-retire director, the ballet displayed to a final whirl his busy choreographic style. He fills almost every moment with movement: his preferred mode could be deemed ‘action ballet’. But there was also carefully-sculptured ballet in evidence here. There was much play, for reasons obvious, on the illusion of nakedness and on clothing, men and women before and after the Fall, and much of this was strikingly translated. In Jonathan Jordon’s first solo (Omni Sol Temperat), the powerful turns and deft lightness brought to mind one of Bernini’s marbles, form caught in motion, a resemblance fleshed out also by the self-flagellation of these Baroque bodies. Sona Kharatian and Gian Carlo Perez provided the main Adam /Eve binary: his energetic powers and impressive musculature, and her plasticity of form (especially lovely in Once I swam in Lakes) were pleasing to behold, and singly or together, they were central to the flow of the whole. A word of praise for Venus Villa, in her first season here at the TWB. Her petite physique privileges a crisp style and she tames and contains the Webrian choreography, neatening its edges. She is to watch in future seasons as her style matures.

Jonathan Jordan in Webre's <i>Carmina Burana</i> © media4artists, Theo Kossenas
Jonathan Jordan in Webre's Carmina Burana
© media4artists, Theo Kossenas
There was, as is fitting for these rambunctious tales, a generous helping of the knock-about, the slapstick and the carnivalesque, filtered mixum-gatherum through Wolf’s text. One can never accuse Webre, or his company, of not having fun. They are a spirit, rather than a letter-of-the-law company, and by gum, don’t they have bucket loads of spirit? Some of the strongest moments of Rabelaisian ballet were in the male ensembles. The ‘Tanz’, a dance à balais, was not the first time, of course in ballet’s history, that the humble sweeping brush made for an excellent partner in an archly inverted pas de deux. It too can be thrown in the air, although the report is rather louder than the average ballerina. Later, in the tavern, there was a pas de chaises with cartwheels and what not in the way of acrobatic antics. A high-octane celebration, in short, of the physicality of life. We could have done, meanwhile, with some translations of the Middle High German titles of the 25 movements. The Latin may have been just about accessible, but I suspect most of the audience were rusty on their Middle High.

The evening concluded with George Balanchine's Theme and Variations, by now a classic. In its crisp patterning at speed, its assembling, disassembling and reassembling of twirling, tutu-ed creatures (ballet is women as Balanchine famously said, and preferably with rhinestones, he might have added), it is Petipa reimagined in high-velocity New York mode. A bijou of ballet activism, there is no leisure for dolce fa niente. As TWB are an active bunch, so far so suitable. Of course, this particular idiom does leave exposed micro flaws in timing and technique, and such there were, but still, it was an engaging performance.