WASHINGTON — After everything from “The Nutcracker” to “Romeo & Juliet,” The Washington Ballet closes out its 2017-2018 season this week with a triple treat at the Kennedy Center.
“Mixed Masters” will stage masterworks from a trio of legendary choreographers with George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” Frederick Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations,” and Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody)” at the Eisenhower Theater from Wednesday to Sunday.
“‘Mixed Masters’ involves choreography by three of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century,” artistic director Julie Kent told WTOP. “These are three ballets that are must sees in anyone’s life. … These are three choreographers that you should know. … They so beautifully reflect the possibilities in our art form that we want to share with our community.”
The night kicks off with Balanchine’s 34-minute “Serenade” featuring music by Tchaikovsky.
“We opened our ‘Russian Masters’ program with ‘Prodigal Son,’ which was the last ballet he choreographed before coming to the United States,” Kent said. “Now, we’re presenting his ‘Serenade,’ which was the first ballet he choreographed once he came to the United States in 1934. It is a jewel, an exquisite portrait of women and a complete realization of the music.”
Not only will audiences witness ballet history, dancers will grow in their technique.
“It’s a very important ballet not only for the audience to see, but for dancers to dance,” Kent said. “The way he constructs [ballets] with the music, they’re very coordinated. They help you with coordination and to become better. Not all great choreographers pull that out of you.”
Just ask Ashley Murphy in her third year with Washington Ballet after training in Harlem.
“The syncopation and the musicality [is] so amazing,” Murphy told WTOP. “I just love the magic. As soon as the curtain goes up and you see 16 women standing there staring into you don’t know where, you want to look where they’re looking. It draws you in immediately.”
The presentation also wowed Birgitta Lawrence, who’s making her first appearance with The Washington Ballet thanks to an international exchange program with the Royal Danish Ballet.
“In ‘Serenade’ everybody’s quite equal, very much woman power, very feminine, everybody standing together, breathing together like a big pulse,” Lawrence said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
Indeed, the world of ballet was never the same after Balanchine.
“He took a classical art form and made it neoclassical,” Kent said. “He brought it into a new century [and] affected every choreographer since him. He was a game changer.”
The second piece is Ashton’s 18-minute “Symphonic Variations” with a score by Cesar Franck.
“‘Symphonic Variations’ is one of Sir Frederick Ashton’s masterpieces,” Kent said. “It’s a pure dance work, so no story. He choreographed it in 1946 just after his service in the Royal Air Force ended at the end of World War II. He had been listening to this piece of music all during the war. … There’s a tone of revitalization, hope, rejuvenation. There’s a victorious undertone.”
This score is married with lavish costumes and colorful backdrop.
“The women are in short Greek dresses like Apollo’s muses with helmets on, and the men are in all white with a sash, bare chested with wristbands that look kind of like armor,” Kent said. “The background is a bright chartreuse green. The story is that Ashton was taking a bike ride with his friend, who was a set designer, and they crested the hill and looked over at the beautiful bright green fields that spring had just sprung and he said, ‘That’s the color I want!'”
As for the dance, it’s a demanding, relentless, high-energy challenge.
“It’s an incredible test of endurance, strength, specificity and synchronization,” Kent said. “It pushes the dancers to their limit. … Nobody leaves the stage in 18 minutes, everybody’s dancing the entire time. … It’s about line, form, structure and integrity under stress, grace under pressure. It’s a very heroic, beautiful, inspiring piece that I’m so thrilled to introduce.”
Lawrence and Murphy expect their colleagues to be sweating bullets.
“They start off so calm and after that they just keep moving, more sweat is coming on their clothes, more heavy breathing,” Lawrence said. “It’s beautiful, but you’re definitely in awe. You’re definitely sucked into their world. Eighteen minutes of hardcore. It’s very challenging.”
“I’ll definitely going to be there with a towel and some water when they finish,” Murphy joked.
While the original production featured just a single cast, including Margot Fonteyn, Michael Sams and Moira Shearer, Kent is audaciously presenting the piece with three different casts.
“[It] reflects the depth of talent that we have in our company,” Kent said. “The Washington Ballet has so many beautifully unique, talented dancers that both shine in their own light and as a group. I’m very, very proud of that and I’m really excited to see all three casts bring it!”
After a second intermission, the trifecta of productions wraps with Robbins’ 32-minute “The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody)” featuring music by the legendary Frédéric Chopin.
“This is Jerome Robbins showcasing his theatrical genius,” Kent said. “It’s a comedic ballet. It tells the story of how your mind might wander while watching a piano recital in little Chopin vignettes. You have a variety of characters: the ballerina, husband, wife, matinee ladies, usher. .. This is a series of character roles that showcases our company’s ability to be theatrical.”
Get ready to laugh as the dancers are carried in over the guys’ heads like surfboards.
“The guys carry us in various interesting positions,” Murphy said. “I actually do a plank on top of a guy’s head. It’s the most interesting but funny way to get on stage that I’ve ever done.”
This leads into the hilarious “Mistake Waltz,” showcasing Lawrence’s comedic chops.
“That’s quite funny,” Lawrence said. “People are definitely laughing out in the auditorium. You want to laugh, but you have to pace yourself because you’re in character.”
As Murphy joins in “The Mistake Waltz,” you’ll be hard pressed not to laugh.
“I’m usually the girl who really can’t get it together and is always going the opposite way of everyone else and trying to figure it out,” Murphy said, to which Lawrence added, “I have to take your arm down at some point because you’re not on the music!”
Equally comedic is “The Angry Girl,” allowing Murphy to show her stuff.
“The Angry Girl comes out and disrupts the concert, stomping around, trying to find somewhere to put her chair, making a lot of noise,” Murphy said. “Usually when you watch a performance, you want to be as quiet as possible. It makes it very entertaining and funny.”
Robbins’ lighthearted ballet is the perfect way to wrap up the show — and the season.
“It’s really so amusing, witty, charming, beautiful and a great foil to the other two pieces,” Kent said. “It rounds out the whole program and showcases the talent in the company. Being a dancer is not just being a great dancer or being a great actor, it’s being able to bring to life whatever ballet is in front of you … with the intention the original choreographer had.”
Find more details on the Kennedy Center website. Listen to our full conversation below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with The Washington Ballet (Full Interview)