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Two world premieres have divergent approches

By: Feb. 19, 2024
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The dance school choices for students, I recall, were ballet and jazz tap. Ne’er the twain shall meet, as Kipling said of the east and west. 

That changes in the current Washington Ballet showcase at the Kennedy Center, “Jazz Icons: A Fine Romance.” In it, two young choreographers, Jessica Lang and Dwight Rhoden, unveil world premiere works that are accompanied by a concert's worth of jazz songs, performed live by three different ensembles, under the musical direction of Marty Ashby of Pittsburgh’s venerable MCG Jazz.

Lang’s opening piece, “Coloring Silent Space” takes advantage of the thrilling possibilities, angular movements and pure joy in some of the best improvisational jazz, particularly in the pieces chosen — all masterfully played by the Craig Davis Trio.

Lang says she was inspired by the freewheeling spirit of Henri Matisse cutouts when putting the work together. And while Matisse first began cutting paper more than 100 years ago while designing for a ballet, the bold geometric shapes atop her stage, at jangled  angles, more bring to mind the abstractions of Kazimir Malevich.

The splashes of color are part of Jillian Lewis’ costumes for the piece, in which five pairs of dancer share a bright hue across their black dance togs or skirts. With a shower of quick, tiny movements, interactions, intricate interweaving, brisk comings and goings off stage, their actions align with the bright, unexpected patterns of the music, as well as the splashy colors and angles of the stage setting.

Despite the momentary pairings and groups, it's largely an ensemble piece, although personalities among the energetic dancers emerge. And there's an artistic alignment of movement, color, sound and rhythm with a result that’s more than their parts.

That’s something that was also working in the music chosen, that includes a melding of Gershwin and Mozart in a piece devised by Chick Corea (and introduced by his recorded voice). And amid the familiar standards like the timely “My Funny Valentine,” sung by bassist Ian Ashby were splashes of pure abstract excitement like a drum solo by Christopher Latona. 

The pace generally was quick and urgent, which only made the intermittent slowed down pieces work even better. 

Performing barefoot, the dancers answered every coloration of the music and enhanced it, sometimes reverting to that prefabricated movement to the music, jazz hands. 

From the start, jazz has been an area where approaches can as different as Dixieland and bebop. Such was the case for “Jazz Icons.” The second half of the program couldn’t be more different. The light and inventive piano jazz of a trio in the first half was replaced in the pit by a swinging 16-piece Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and even more jarringly, the vocalese quartet New York Voices, who took to the stage to harmonize and scat to largely upbeat jazz numbers as a larger group of dancers — 16 at its height — danced to Rhoden’s choreography. It made for a crowded stage at times, however he lined them up. 

Whether it was the brassy blare of a band that brought to mind the “Tonight Show” bands of Doc Severinsen, the vocalese of a group that formed in 1987 with a style that seemed dated then, or the selection of tunes leaded with nostalgia (“I’ll Be Seeing You”), the enterprise seemed more of a throwback. That was reflected a bit too in Christine Darch’s glittery costumes, a kind of half skirt on women, and vests on the bare-chested men.

What didn’t come through at all was the promise of a “tribute to pioneering women in jazz,” although there were a couple of the selections written by Mary Lou Williams, and songs by men that had been sung by women (but weren’t necessarily in the piece).  

And in Rhoden's choreography there was that moment when a woman was lifted by a throng of handsome men, the hallmark of TV variety show dancing of a half century ago. With smoke wafting into the set lit by Brandon Stirling Baker, dancers entered and exited in their cocktail dresses en pointe instead of in heels — trading one art form’s uncomfortable footwear for another. 

Running time: About 100 minutes, with a 20 minute intermission.

Photo creditJessica Lang’s “Coloring Silent Space.” Photo by @xmbphotography. 

“Jazz Icons: A Fine Romance” by The Washington Ballet runs through Feb. 18 at The Kennedy Center Performing Arts Center. Tickets available online


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