WASHINGTON — The JFK Centennial is in full swing at the Kennedy Center, marking President John F. Kennedy’s upcoming 100th birthday on May 29.
So for an aspirational president who declared, “We choose to go to the moon,” what better way to celebrate his legacy than with a ballet about the space race in the very venue that bears his name?
The Washington Ballet presents “Frontier” from May 25-27 in the Kennedy Center Opera House, marking Julie Kent’s first commissioned work since taking over as TWB artistic director last year.
“I thought it was a beautiful moment to pay tribute to him … by commissioning my first commissioned work in his honor,” Kent told WTOP. “As a new artistic director, that’s a huge first commission, and I didn’t want it to be something incidental. It really needed to reflect my aspirations of the company.”
So, Kent shot for the moon and called renowned choreographer Ethan Stiefel, who’s danced with all the great ballet masters and even appeared alongside Kent in the dance movie “Center Stage” (2000).
“It was important to me that the creator of this work had an arts education in this country,” Kent said. “He is an American artist, he’s had his entire artistic education in this country, has experience around the world, he’s danced all the works of the greatest choreographers from Jerome Robbins to George Balanchine. … I’m really curious how his artistic voice will be seen as an emerging choreographer.”
Stiefel quickly began brainstorming ideas for potential themes for the JFK Centennial.
“I was really excited and grateful for the opportunity and went to work trying to figure out what the subject would be,” Stiefel told WTOP. “There were so many different ways I could go with it [but] so many people are intrigued by space travel that it really resonated with me. It was something I could do, building vocabulary and theatricality to be expressive … in a very strong way through dance.”
He quickly began doing his research, meeting with experts in the space travel industry.
“I had to do some homework,” Stiefel said. “I did a lot of reading and went to the Explorers Club in New York City to their space talks. A couple of friends … put me in touch with Bert Ulrich over at NASA, so I was able to meet with an astronaut, a planetary scientist, a historian, and just gather information that would be useful to structuring a ballet that is abstract but has a narrative arc.”
What exactly is that narrative arc?
“It’s primarily focused on the experience of the astronaut,” Stiefel said. “We see the astronauts as candidates, how it’s everyone’s dream to be the one chosen. We see the rigor and physical, mental and emotional training. We end up with one chosen astronaut, a female who will go into space and explore this planet. … I also felt that there was a great parallel between astronauts and dancers in terms of a lifelong pursuit, the passion, the discipline, the commitment and the superhero quality.”
Indeed, the idea of space travel provides plenty of possibilities for ballet movements.
“The movement in the beginning is much more earthbound, mechanical, rigorous to show the intense training [and] then when we’re on the planet, try to suggest weightlessness. … If you go back to the 1800s with ‘Giselle’ or ‘La Sofied’ and the pointe shoe, essentially weightlessness was explored in a different way through that medium, but it seemed ideal to use the pointe shoe and that idea in 2017.”
As for the visual look, scenic designer Dmitrij Simkin combines animation, rear and front projection, as well as string curtains that you can project through to create different textures and dimensions. Best of all, the costumes are designed by NASA contractor Ted Southern at Final Frontier Designs.
“He’s an actual spacesuit maker, a contractor with NASA for spacesuits and gloves,” Stiefel said. “I had no idea that’s who I’d be working with, but I think it’s a fantastic thing to work with someone inside the space industry who’s living and breathing that every day. I’ve learned a heck of a lot. They can bring that authenticity. … To have somebody that’s legit … I’m just grateful for the collaboration.”
It’s all backed by Adam Crystal’s music, conducted by Martin West of Washington Ballet Orchestra.
“I first began to work with Adam Crystal when I was an artistic director, [then] worked with Adam on ‘Flesh & Bone,’ a TV series on Starz,” Stiefel said. “I thought he’s an ideal guy to work on this project. We’ve got a really fresh, engaging and exciting score that has classical music sophistication using the orchestra, but also a more modern touch and essence in terms of using electronic and digital sound.”
Truly, few projects blend sights, sounds, movements, math, science and artistry like TWB’s “Frontier.”
“It hopefully is a reflection of what President Kennedy aspired to in the beautiful artistic statements he’s made and what the Kennedy Center itself represents,” Kent said. “It’s a really important moment of collaboration between art and science. We’re really thrilled all the stars aligned for this to happen.”