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BWW Review: ABT FORWARD at Kennedy Center

A trio of new works in American Ballet Theatre annual residency.

BWW Review: ABT FORWARD at Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center's 50th anniversary (whose celebrations have largely been pushed back a year due to the pandemic) coincides with the golden anniversary of the annual residency there of New York's American Ballet Theatre, whose first performance there came the day after the venerable Washington Performing Arts center opened in 1971.

Those anniversaries coincide this week with another landmark - the 30th season for ABT artistic director Kevin Mckenzie, who was a principal dancer with the troupe for a decade before that. It is also his final season in the post, so there was a salute by Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter at the beginning of the first night of the run Tuesday, and he was brought on stage at the end to take a bow - an even more special moment since he began his dance career in Washington.

McKenzie's final years were marked with a number of new works, three of which comprised the opening evening, titled "ABT Forward" (which was repeated Wednesday).

Its highlight in many ways came first with "Bernstein in a Bubble," choreographed by the company's artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky and set to the jaunty music of Leonard Bernstein's 1980 "Divertimento."

As welcome as the coming of spring after a long winter - and indeed the long absence of live performance in two years of pandemic - it fairly burst in color and movement. The small groupings of talented dancers from a troupe of seven dancers - four men and three women - were well matched to the eight brief and light pieces that make up the piece.

Their exuberance was likely heightened by the live setting what was originally conceived for a "digital world premiere" a year ago, hence the bubble in the title.

Now with the COVID bubble seemingly burst, the performances came bolstered with extra verve in front of this familiar audience (albeit one still masked and with proof of vaccination).

Bernstein was commissioned to compose the work to celebrate another performing arts landmark - the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and equally as delightful to experience was the backing of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, back in glorious full force and conducted by Charles Barker, who took a bow with the dancers at the piece's conclusion.

The orchestra had already provided an important and stirring moment by performing the Ukrainian National Anthem (to a fully standing audience) to begin the evening, after Rutter noted the role of the arts to bring people together, a power as important as diplomacy in trying to end war. The moment at a grand hall that thinks itself the National Performing Arts Center squarely in the Nation's Capital, was a bold and moving gesture that ought to be adopted by other companies and awards show to demonstrate solidarity.

Certainly, the recognition was central to the world of ballet, where Ratmansky, the company's artist in residence and choreographer of "Bernstein in a Bubble," was a Russian-born former director of the Bolshoi Ballet who was once principal dancer with the Ukrainian National Ballet.

The performing troupe, as well has roots in the fraught part of the world, with some born in Russia, others in Ukraine.

But like the other splendors of the Bernstein piece, it helped make one forget for a moment the horrors of the war.

The second piece of the evening, "Single Eye," was also composed of a number of short, individual pieces using a larger group. But like the rest of the evening, it relied on music by Jason Moran of solo piano backed by an unsettling modernist electronic fuzz. Choreographed by Alonzo King, it was the newest piece of the evening, having premiered less than two weeks earlier in California.

The striking, edgy music was matched by the setting, with wrinkly scrims by designer Robert Rosenwasser and lighting by Brad Fields that featured what seemed like lingering clouds above the dancers.

While it featured some notable showcases, such as a winning solo by dancer Calvin Royal III, its seven movements didn't always add up to the overall theme stated in the Biblical epigraph "If thine eye be single, they whole body shall be full of light."

Most disarming, however, was the final bit of fluff, "ZigZag." The orchestra having long since gone home, this relied entirely on recorded music, specifically 10 records by Tony Bennett.

With Wes Gordon's bright, flouncy dresses in bright yellow, fuchsia, royal blue (or bold black and white polka dots, the sweeping ensemble work and a backing zig zag graphic that brought to mind old TV sets (if not Charlie Brown's sweater), the choreography by Jessica Lang seemed a throwback to 1960s era variety show troupes. That meant movement so directly depicting lyrics they approached charades, from the "little cable cars climb[ing] halfway to the stars" to "the golden sun" that shines for me. And the company seemed to combine and stretch to depict the spans of the Golden Gate Bridge a couple of times.

It also uses a couple pieces of art by Bennett - a a cityscape of Manhattan that dropped its horizon from dance to dance, and a sketch of jazz musician Hank Jones to accompany its penultimate "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing."

Meant to mark the 80th anniversary of ABT in 2020, "ZigZag" had its premiere delayed until last October. As fun as some of it was - and indeed the entire evening seemed a triumphant return for live performance - it seemed merely a minor entertainment to cap an evening when so many monumental anniversaries were being marked.

The main part of the ABT residency is a performance of "Don Quixote" through Sunday, April 3.

Running time: About two hours, including two 20 minute intermissions.

Photo credit: Chloe Misseldine and Aran Bell in "Bernstein in a Bubble." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

"ABT Forward" was performed March 29 and 30 at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center, where the American Ballet Theatre performance of "Don Quixote" runs through April 2. Information and tickets online.

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