What if you could take a cross-country tour to get a snapshot of what smaller ballet companies are presenting across the United States? That is the goal of the Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America festival, a cross-section of regional ballet from around the country, now in its third installment after previous incarnations in 2008 and 2010. The most recent work on the first set of three ballets, seen last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House was Ershter Vals, a work choreographed by Ma Cong for Richmond Ballet and premiered there in 2010. The dancers move to a recorded soundtrack of klezmer music, based on tunes from the Jewish ghettos of World War II-era Europe and recorded by Klezroym (unfortunately amplified at an ear-piercing volume in the theater). Cong has said that the work is about redemption and hope, but the choreography is too abstract to communicate much directly. The dancers present some stylized gestures that seem to indicate violence, like the dragging of bodies, faces buried in hands for lamentation, jerking movements like limbs being broken or lashed. Overall, though, the work is simply pretty -- orange or pink pastel dresses for the women, white shirts and maroon pants for the men -- and its opening gesture, a woman lifted up with arms outstretched, carried out in silence, sets a happy tone.
The most striking tableau of the evening came in James Kudelka's choreography Almost Mozart (pictured above), made for Oregon Ballet Theater, where it was premiered in 2006. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra was in the pit but had little to play, because Kudelka has taken just shreds of Mozart's music -- from the Masonic Funeral Music (K. 477) and slow movement of the A major piano concerto (no. 23, K. 488) -- and had them played mostly at intervals between the dance segments, most of which were performed in silence (watch excerpt). This was maddening on one hand, because when one knows the music that is being chopped up it can be exceedingly annoying, especially when applause at the ends of dances obscured much of the music leading into the next segment. On the other hand, the provocation of the musical gesture -- not including any of the concerto's iconic piano solo part (!) -- bore fruit in the meaning and intensity of the silences that followed. You found yourself focused on the sounds the dancers made, their labored breathing as the dance continued, but eventually it seemed clear that too much was sacrificed by removing music quite so much. The most effective vignette was the Duet of Grace Shibley and Brett Bauer, which did have some music to accompany it, and evoked the man as a sort of puppet-master moving the woman-puppet, sometimes frozen and sometimes in motion -- Kudelka imposed on himself the limitation that the dancers, in groups of two or three, had to remain "attached to one another by hand" most of the time.
Sarah Kaufman, ‘Symphony in Three Movements’ makeover retains Balanchine ballet’s transcendence (Washington Post, June 6)
This program is repeated tonight (June 5, 7:30 pm) in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The Ballet Across America festival continues through June 9.