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Ballet Across American opens at the Kennedy Center

Now More Than Ever (short film directed by Ezra Hurwitz)

It's time for Ballet Across America, the festival featuring American regional dance companies hosted by the Kennedy Center about every three years. The format is a little different this year, with two programs curated by leading American dancers, Misty Copeland and Justin Peck. The festivities kicked off on Monday evening, with a celebratory program hosted by New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Copeland and Peck both made appearances but did not perform.

Somewhat oddly, this opening night featured one of the major works programmed later in the the week and some that were only for this evening. The festivities opened with At This Stage, a film directed by Ezra Hurwitz, about a group of dance students at the American Ballet Theater Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. They spoke about how they became interested in dance and about the opportunity to work with ground-breaking choreographer Jeremy McQueen, who created a dance just for them.

The seven students then appeared on stage to perform the work, Garden of Dreams, for the first time. In white and pastel costumes (designed by Mondo Morales) the dancers brought the short piece to life, appropriately on the theme of blossoming. McQueen set his beautiful, classically oriented choreography to the last movement of Mendelssohn's second piano trio, performed by musicians from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, amplified from the back of the stage.

An exquisite rendition of the pas de deux from Anthony Tudor's The Leaves Are Fading, danced by ABT principal dancers Stella Abrera and Marcelo Gomes, was the highlight of the evening. The gorgeous eighth movement of Dvořák's Cypresses, played beautifully by the orchestra, provided the dreamy backdrop for this wistful piece, a sort of remembered romance. It was paired unforgettably with Dwight Rhoden's Imprint/Maya, a solo dance set to David Rozenblatt's slow ballad setting of Maya Angelou's poem My Guilt (performed by Melanie Nyema). In contrast to the gentle caress of the music, the spasmodic movements of the tall, powerful dancer Desmond Richardson communicated both anguish and strength, frantic reaching out for help and solace followed by shrinking back as if in pain.

Desmond Richardson in Imprint/Maya, choreographed by Dwight Rhoden (photo by Teresa Wood)

The works on the second half were less effective, beginning with Justin Peck's curious Chutes and Ladders from 2013, danced by Miami City Ballet principal dancers Jeanette Delgado and Renan Cerdeiro. Its quirky movements are matched ingeniously with the music, the first movement of Britten's first string quartet, especially the pizzicato notes. The music did not sound optimally through amplification, and the choreography was not otherwise memorable.

The major disappointment was saved for last, Concerto, the large work being presented by Nashville Ballet later this week. It may have seemed like a good idea to select Ben Folds's music for this choreography by the company's artistic director, Paul Vasterling, now featured at the company's Kennedy Center debut with Folds at the piano on stage. Folds seemed to channel musical styles from Gershwin and Tchaikovsky and even Cage-like string manipulations, which sort of went with Vasterling's Broadway-tinted movements, but the result was sterile. The Folds piece has made the rounds in the last couple years -- the National Symphony Orchestra played it in 2015 -- a popularity I could not square with the effect it produced.

Ballet Across America continues this evening, with two different programs concluding on Sunday.

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