Q&A: Washington Ballet kicks off 2019-2020 season with ‘NEXTsteps’

October 23, 2019

March 4, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

From “The Nutcracker” to “Swan Lake,” “Balanchine + Ashton” to “Coppélia,” it’s going to be an exciting 2019-2020 season for The Washington Ballet.

It all kicks off this week with “NEXTsteps,” offering three never-before-seen productions at Sidney Harman Hall this Wednesday through Sunday.

“We’re continuing our commitment to the creative process and advancing dance into the 21st century with three new commissioned works that are making their world premieres,” artistic director Julie Kent told WTOP.

“The 2019-2020 season will clearly mark the incredible artistic growth of the organization after [my] three seasons here. This beautiful season opening shows our commitment to the whole spectrum of what our art form has to offer, creating opportunities for our dancers to expand their understanding, artistic depth and physical and technical depth.”

The first world premiere of the “NEXTsteps” program is Jessica Lang’s traditional work “Reverence,” adapting Robert Schuman’s 11-movement piece “Symphonic Etudes” performed live by pianist Glenn Sales. There is no specific story per se, but rather an interpretive view of eight dancers (four men and four women).

“She has created a beautiful ballet to the music of Robert Shuman, a beautiful piano vignette, some of which was actually released posthumously — very moving music,” Kent said. “Lang’s costumes are designed by a woman she’s worked with in the past named Jillian Lewis. … They’re beautiful dresses. … I’m confident with their long history of a working relationship that it’s going to be complementary to the tone, atmosphere and movement that Jessica’s created.”

The second world premiere is Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Delusional Beauty,” featuring music of “The Escape” by Christen Lien and “Kentucky” by Aaron Martin

“It’s a surrealist piece … inspired by Salvador Dali, in particular, the painting of a woman with a head of roses,” Kent said. “There’s a beautiful [costume] design by Mark Zappone inspired by Dali and themes of gold and rose. The costume for the female figurehead is really very beautiful.”

The third world premiere is John Heginbotham’s upbeat “RACECAR.”

“We’re thrilled to have John Heginbotham, who I have known for decades and admired as a dancer with his long career at Mark Morris Dance Group [and] as a choreographer,” Kent said. “He has established his own company, Dance Heginbotham. We connected when Washington Ballet was performing at Jacob’s Pillow [in Massachusetts], as was Dance Heginbotham. The result is a brand-new commissioned work that takes our company one step further in our evolution.”

Heginbotham leapt at the chance to work with Kent on a world premiere.

“She told me to follow my impulses,” Heginbotham said. “I wanted to make a work for a large group, so we have a group of 16 dancers performing. … We’ve made a 20-minute piece with five sections. From my perspective, it’s quite athletic and extremely rigorous in the dancing that’s going on, and there’s sort of a central section in the middle of the piece where everything becomes airy, spare and emotional as a relationship between a couple of the dancers is performed.”

The unique element is that it’s all set to percussion instruments.

“I wanted to take the opportunity to do something with the ballet vocabulary that I have not seen or heard before, so I chose music that is not traditional for the genre: percussion by Sō Percussion [and] composer Jason Treuting,” Kent said. “The percussion music is primarily beat-driven. There are melodies which emerge as the piece goes along, but they are melodies that come from chimes and bells and at one point a music box. So what we’re mainly hearing is a series of quite complicated rhythms, sometimes polyrhythms laid over one another.”

These percussion sounds match vibrant costumes by Maile Okamura.

“Before we even made a step on this piece, I sent her the music we were using,” Heginbotham said. “One of the percussion instruments is a hole punch, which is very clearly, audibly a hole punch, so I sent her to research fabric. She found this fabric [that’s] kind of like lace, it’s white with little tiny holes throughout it. It’s quite elegant. … The costume is an extremely flattering jumpsuit that the entire company wears, then the [lace] they’re wearing is fire-engine-red body-tards.”

The footwear is iconic, recalling the classic British film “The Red Shoes” (1948).

“Red shoes in a ballet, that is an iconic statement!” Heginbotham said. “Powell and Pressburger made this beautiful film. Whether you love dance or not, that movie is a beautiful piece of art. So, Maile has given us red shoes. The legend is that the ballerina puts on the shoes and never stops dancing, and that is kind of the case in this piece too. It really is nonstop energy. She does stop at one point because the curtain is coming down, but for those 20 minutes it is pretty intense.”

Dancer Helga Paris-Morales agrees that it’s an exciting challenge.

“He has this huge group of 16 bodies on stage and I am one of those bodies bursting through the floor,” Paris-Morales said. “Using the element of percussion as a dancer who primarily listens to classical music, it’s so humbling and such a beautiful learning process. You realize what time signature is and how music is truly built. … We make the music alive. So, having someone like John who is so musical and finds all these nuances … you can picture the notes in your body.”

The challenge is worth it, as she’ll forever be cemented in a world premiere.

“It’s honestly incredible and really surreal,” Paris-Morales said. “I’m going to feel that for sure on the day of the show. Right now I’m just trying my hardest to have this in my body and in my brain. It hasn’t truly hit me in the face yet, the magnitude of the beauty that we’re creating and going to be sharing into the world. I can’t wait to share this with people. It’s the 21st century, we’re living in such an important time in history, so being able to produce new art and show it to people at this time is such a huge responsibility as an artist. I’m really blessed.”

This week’s kickoff show is just the beginning of an exciting new season that continues with “The Nutcracker” (Nov. 23-Dec. 29), “Balanchine + Ashton” (Feb. 19-23), “Swan Lake” (April 9-19) and finally “Coppélia” (May 13-17).

“‘The Nutcracker’ is a wonderful opportunity to connect with the community; we’ll have 500 students from our school, including my daughter,” Kent said. “Then we move on to the ‘Balanchine + Ashton’ program, which will showcase the incredible talents of our company. ‘Swan Lake’ with the staging of my husband Victor Barbee and myself will be a really important milestone. … Then finishing with ‘Coppélia’ … it’s a family favorite, so it’s just going to be a great season.”

Find more details on the event website and hear our full conversation below:

March 4, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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