To be honest, I rarely attend performances by The Washington Ballet for the dancing. I show up for the theme — a favorite musician, novels and stories, or band. It was no different with the company’s recent and last performance under Septime Webre‘s artistic direction yesterday at the Kennedy Center titled “Bowie & Queen” (the late great David Bowie and Freddie Mercury tracks). One of the challenges I’ve noted with Washington Ballet is the company’s ability to connect on a soulful level with the choreography and music during a performance. Bowie & Queen is the exception. The company has found its groove and soul. And choreographers Edward Liang and Trey McIntyre have given me a reason to show up for more than my favorite rock and roll music.
The program was organized into two 50 minute segments separated by an intermission. Liang’s “Dancing in the Street” features David Bowie’s early music “Good Morning Girl” and “I’m Not Losing Sleep” in addition to original music by Gabriel Gaffney Smith commissioned by the Washington Ballet and performed live by violinist Machiko Ozawa and cellist Suzanne Orban. This was an uplifting ensemble piece on all levels from the music to the dancing, to costuming by Erin E. Rollins.
The second half, “Mercury Half-Life” evokes the spirit of Freddie Mercury from the first tap dancing steps on the stage by a male soloist. I was half joking before the show when I said I hope they include “Bicycle Race.” Yet there it was. Less experienced choreographers can go for the literal, but Trey McIntyre went for the rhythmic not only in the instrumental but the vocal. Dancing to the words may not look cool in the club, but it works for ballet. Or perhaps the genius is in the musical abilities of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen in making vocal music both melodic and rhythmic.
Ballet is reaching new audiences thanks to the vision of persons like Septime Webre. He and others are breaking with with the pink tights and toe shoes aesthetic for brown, black, beige, dancers of different hues, trainings, even body mass. Before the performance I talked with the mom of a ballet school student. She voiced her concern about the direction of the Washington Ballet school and company after Septime (who’s stepping down in June after 17 years to focus on choreography).
She told me her daughter wanted to take a break. The mother says she’s trying to assess her daughter’s reason for pressing the pause button. From this mother’s perspective the direction for the new artistic director is signaling a return to classic ballet for the school and company. American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) Julie Kent will be the new artistic director. In a Washington Post interview, Kent talks about “setting the bar higher” for the company: “There’s no reason why it can’t be the absolute, quintessential chamber ballet company. There are so many artistic institutions in D.C. who reflect the artistic excellence of the city, and I would really like to build the Washington Ballet so that it is respected in that way.”
For some parents and students this can be interpreted as code for a purely European body and artistic aesthetic. The mention of Balanchine can send chills down some dancers’ spines.
Founded by Mary Day 40 years ago when DC was “chocolate city”, Washington Ballet stayed inside its bubble with not as much as a glance at the city’s resident majority. [Black and brown girls went to Jones-Haywood.] That seemed to change after Septime Webre took the helm following a soul-searching trip for him and the company to Cuba in 2000. [Septime is part Cuban.] I got wind of this trip from a filmmaker who documented the experience.
When the company returned and presented some of the footage and stories about their visit to Cuba, one of the highlights Septime shared was an observation that Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s optics reflected a European preference and did not reflect the country’s people, i.e. no Afro-Cuban dancers. After raising my hand, I politely commented, “the same can be said for Washington Ballet.” Either the then new artistic director Septime and the institution had already set the wheels in motion, or a light went on at that moment in the Corcoran School of Art’s auditorium. Washington Ballet wasn’t the same since.
For the sake of students inspired by ABT’s Misty Copeland and the dancers I saw on the stage for Bowie & Queen, I hope Washington Ballet will continue with their “both/and” approach. The dancers are connecting. And based on the nearly sold-out attendance Sunday, so is the audience.
Note: This post has been updated.