Review: NEW YORK BALLET: VISIONARY VOICES at the Kennedy Center

The New York City Ballet: Visionary Voices continues at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW, through June 11.

By: Jun. 09, 2023
Review: NEW YORK BALLET: VISIONARY VOICES at the Kennedy Center

When the New York City Ballet comes to Washington, audiences flock to see their greatest hits from their past — particularly of founding choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

Accordingly, they are celebrated in one packed program in their current springtime stop at the Kennedy Center. But a second program concentrating on recent premieres creates a better picture of where the storied ballet company is today and where it is headed.

Four of those pieces, including one that premiered as recently as last month, were assembled in a program called ‘Visionary Voices” that began on a high note with the oldest work of the night, Alexei Ratmansky’s dazzling “Pictures at an Exhibition” from 2014, the year the current artistic director Jonathan Stafford became one of the company’s ballet masters.

Though it began with a bit of a glitch — a production issue that caused a delay in the dark for a few minutes — the curtain opened to a huge projection of Wassily Kandinsky’s iconic 193 “Color Study Squares with Concentric Circles,,” a bright abstract study that in turn inspired designer Adeline Andre’s brightly colored costumes and Ratmansky’s celebratory movements. 

Together it reanimated the blossoming of 20th century modern — all to the spare piano accompaniment of Modest Mussorgsky’s familiar piece, performed by Susan Walters (who joined the company for a bow at the piece’s end). 

The artist whose exhibit Mussorgsky imagined he was walking through was a different Russian — Viktor Hartmann. But it worked just as well with Kandinsky’s groundbreaking work, which morphs and adapts slowly in Wendall K. Harrington’s projection design, working with Mark Stanley’s lighting. 

The dancing from a group of 10 was precise, exuberant and exhilarating, highlighted by  Indiana Woodward’s remarkable extensions, as well as the strength and grace of Mira Nadon, Alexa Maxwell and Olivia McKinnon.

While it seemed nothing could top the opener, the next piece, “Standard Deviation,” seemed bursting with energy and ideas. The newest work on the roster, the collaboration of Canadian choreographer Alysa Pires with edgy music from young Australian composer Jack Frerer had its own brand of cool — with a guest saxophonist, Chris Hemingway, joining the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra conducted by Tara Simoncic. 

In largely monochromatic costumes of gray by Dana Osborne, Pires’ New York City Ballet debut featured tight groupings of dancers, from which individual soloists and pairs broke out (in distinctively more colored outfits). The variety and angles of their movements matched the variations of the music.

Naomi Corti was a knockout in Justin Peck’s demanding choreography for “Solo,” the first piece he created for a standalone artist (originally principal dancer Anthony Huxley).

Created for a 2021 pandemic-era digital performance and not debuting live until last November, it crackled with the kind of power a video presentation couldn’t touch. Set to the music of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” “Solo” was the only other piece that required the orchestra. 

The final piece "Love Letter (on shuffle)" used the sputtering electronic music of British singer and songwriter James Blake cranked up on the sound system. 

Although it only premiered last September, "Love Letter" seemed more dated than that. In part because of the music but especially the costuming — a kind of kaleidoscopic Baroque designed fly Giles Deacon for the typical excesses of the 2022 Fall Fashion Gala. But Kyle Abraham’s choreography rose above it, with the troupe of 16 often echoing the jittery blips  of the blaring electronica.

Altogether, the evening underscored how up-to-date ballet can be, as presented by a top notch company founded on a fresh modernization (that can now be treated as classic).

Running time: About two hours with 30 minutes, with two intermissions.

Photo credit: Indiana Woodward and members of the New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Photo by Erin Baiano. 

The New York City Ballet: Visionary Voices continues at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW, through June 11, repeating June 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. A different program, “Founding Choreographers,” is performed June 10 and 11 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets and information available Click Here


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Roger Catlin, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a Washington D.C.-based arts writer whose work appears regularly in and AARP the Magazine. He has a... Roger Catlin">(read more about this author)


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