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Washington Ballet takes flight in long-delayed return to Kennedy Center

Washington Ballet corps in “Swan Lake,” at the Kennedy Center through Sunday. (xmb Photography)

Sometimes this season it feels like the last two years didn't happen or were some sort of bad dream. This was the feeling last night watching Julie Kent and Victor Barbee's long-awaited Swan Lake finally make it to the Kennedy Center. It was as if we were back in 2020, a few years into the Kent era at Washington Ballet. Somehow, the company's new production of Swan Lake, a marquee event for any dance company, was not canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. Watching this group continue to move in an encouraging direction made one realize again how culturally deprived we have been during the lockdowns.

Ballet is back, or almost. This run is taking place in the Eisenhower Theater rather than the Opera House (occupied instead by something Broadway). Things felt a little cramped: the scenery (designed by Peter Cazalet and on loan from Ballet West) crowded the dancers at times on the smaller stage. The limited number of strings, with the Washington Ballet Orchestra packed into the venue's smaller pit, limited some of the musical climaxes of Tchaikovsky's often wondrous score. The important thing was that the company made its return accompanied by live music, with Charles Barker, principal conductor of American Ballet Theater, again invited to take the podium. With some shortcomings in the collective string sound, the instrumental contributions were excellent, including the violin solos of concertmaster Sally McLain, the bright trumpet of Chris Gekker, brilliant flute and oboe of Sara Stern and Ron Erler, and the magical harp of Nadia Pessoa.

Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, Washington Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ is finally at the Kennedy Center, intimate and also more ambitious than ever (Washington Post, February 10)

Lisa Traiger, Washington Ballet shows a so-so ‘Swan Lake’ at Kennedy Center (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, February 11)

Kent and Barbee built their production on the choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, made for the 1895 revision of the ballet. It has more in common with Kevin McKenzie's version, last seen from American Ballet Theater in 2017 (see video), than the reconfigured version created by Konstantin Sergeyev, last seen with the Mariinsky Ballet in 2014. Spoiler Alert: At the end, Odette leaps from a cliff into the lake rather than live with Prince Siegfried's betrayal. Siegfried joins her in death, leaping as well, and their union destroys the power of the demonic von Rothbart over the flock of women he has turned into swans.

Some things were different. Kent and Barbee did not distract from the orchestral prelude to the first act with any added action, allowing the music to set the stage by itself, leaving the first appearance of the villain, von Rothbart, to the lake scene in Act II. In the original libretto, he appeared in the form of an owl, recalled in some ways by the movements and costume worn by Daniel Roberge, although his wings were more like those of a butterfly or moth. Child dancers featured prominently in the first act as girls and boys from the village celebrating Prince Siegfried's birthday, a charming way to showcase the company's training program. Their choreography, prominently featuring a roundel dance about a May pole, created an idyllic backdrop to the prince's life.

The dancing was all extraordinary. The leads of Eun Won Lee and Gian Carlo Perez are the same as in the company's Romeo and Juliet from 2018, and they have become a beautiful pairing together. Lee seemed both proud and fragile in the Act II pas de deux, and Perez's lifts and leaps showed exceptional strength. Lee seemed less a natural fit as the evil twin, Odile, in the third act, but there was no lack of technique to be sure, not least in that demanding sequence of 32 fouetté turns. The Friday night audience ended up with a bit of luxury casting, as Masanori Takiguchi, who is dancing the role of Siegfried in the alternate cast, took over the role of Benno from Lope Lim. (The reason for Lim being indisposed was not given.) The substitution gave an extra spark to the Pas de Trois in Act I, with Ayano Kimura and the spirited, girlish Ashley Murphy-Wilson.

The corps de ballet danced with near-flawless precision, to beautiful and sometimes comic effect. When the men first encountered the swan-women in the second act, an attempt to touch one of them provoked a unison snapping down of their raised arms. The four cygnets, arm in arm in that famous scene in Act II, moved with crisp unity, and the big swans (Adelaide Clauss and Brittany Stone) presided with elegance over the corps in Act IV. For once the divertissment of national dances did not drag down Act III, with fine contributions from both the men and women of the company, in particular the Czardas, led by Kateryna Derechnya and Tamás Krisza. The richly colored costumes in this scene (also designed by Peter Cazalet and on loan from Ballet West) sparkled under vivid lighting by Brad Fields.

Swan Lake runs through February 13 in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

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