Some thoughts on the fall seasons for theater and dance in Washington:
A View from the Bridge, Reflected
Ivo van Hove’s radical staging of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge is one of the most overwhelming theatrical experiences I have ever had. Van Hove, the iconoclastic Belgian director, stripped away the entirety of the naturalistic performance tradition that has dominated American theater for over half a century, revealing something starker, more direct, more primal. Still reeling hours after the play’s end, I imagined the experience to have been like seeing a new tragedy by Sophocles.
And yet it is with great trepidation that I approach the touring version of this production, which won the Tony for Best Director and Best Revival of a Play this June. It will arrive at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower’s Theater this fall, but crucially without the original cast (Nov. 18-Dec. 3). Replacement casts are always dicey propositions—not only for general lack of rehearsal time but also, in this case, for not having participated in van Hove’s famously intense and collaborative process of discovery in the rehearsal room. The touring production also doesn’t seem to be incorporating the on-stage seating*, which gave some 200 audience members a ring-side view of the raw brutality of the play’s caged emotions. Sitting literally feet away from the actors during the play’s devastating conclusion was like mainlining catharsis.
(*Update 10/28/16: The Kennedy Center is now selling on-stage seats for this production.)
IP is Everything
The wackiest project on Washington’s fall theater calendar is confirmation that we are living in the era of Intellectual Property (IP). Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, the creative team behind the lugubrious, Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical about mental illness, Next to Normal, are turning their hands to an adaptation of the Disney property, Freaky Friday, which will have its world premiere at Signature Theatre (Oct. 4-Nov. 20). Freaky Friday, the classic body-switching children’s novel by Mary Rodgers, has been made into three different Disney movies, most recently the 2003 version, notable for featuring the second best performance of Lindsay Lohan’s acting career (after The Parent Trap). This kind of project only really makes sense for Kitt and Yorkey in an era when commercial realities mean that established IP and brand-name franchises are everything. The best minds of my generation…
Julie Kent Takes Over at the Washington Ballet
The Julie Kent era at the Washington Ballet kicks off on September 30, with the company’s 40th anniversary gala. Galas are rarely artistically satisfying evenings, given the competing demands of fundraising, speechifying, and mollifying the short attention spans of gala patrons. But this program marks the welcome return to the repertory of one of the Washington Ballet’s former signature works: Fives, an early ballet by Choo San Goh, the most important choreographer associated with the company’s history. Goh, one of the most promising choreographic voices of his generation, was resident choreographer and then associate artistic director from the company’s founding in 1976 until his untimely death in 1987. Fives is a vibrant, exhilarating work that showcases inventive ensemble patterns, and it’s wonderful to see the company honor its past even as it looks ahead. (Full disclosure: my ballet teacher and founding company member, Julie Miles, is staging Fives for this gala).
As for the company’s future, Kent, the new artistic director, has expressed outsized ambitions for this regional, chamber-sized company. Those plans, including an expansion from 21 to 40(!) dancers, will take many, many years and considerable resources to ever realize. In the meantime, this season’s programming gives a clear sense of the company’s direction: away from the singular and mediocre choreographic vision of outgoing artistic director Septime Webre and toward the same trendy repertory that every company seems to be dancing these days (Justin Peck’s In Creases comes in next March, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas follows in April).
Wheeldon and Ratmansky on Tour
Speaking of trendy choreographers … the big-name event on Washington dance’s calendar this fall seems to be Christopher Wheeldon’s production of Cinderella, which the San Francisco Ballet will be bringing on tour to the Kennedy Center Opera House (Oct. 26-30). Wheeldon’s Cinderella is less a great work of choreography, though, than a visual spectacle and a lavish piece of dance theater—with a principal attraction coming in the form of puppeteer Basil Twist’s imaginative creations.
Far more intriguing, on the level of dance, is Mariinsky Ballet’s production of Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful story ballet Little Humpbacked Horse (Jan. 31-Feb. 5). Some balletomanes are dismissive of this comic ballet as a mere children’s fable, but the ballet showcases some of the most winning aspects of Ratmansky’s work: wit, humor, impishness, and a generally off-kilter sensibility that surprises and delights (the dance for the six wet nurses is a particular favorite).
Casting, always so crucial, will be interesting to note, given the habit of the Mariinsky Ballet in recent years of effectively dividing the company into two or even three troupes between different, concurrent tours and performances on their home stage. When I first saw the ballet in 2011 in New York, the role of the Tsar Maiden was danced by the ultra classical and elegant ballerina, Evgenia Obraztsova, who has since departed for the Bolshoi. The male lead, Ivan, was exuberantly danced that afternoon by Vladimir Shklyarov, who remains on the Mariinsky’s roster but recently signed with the Bayerische Staatsoper and will take a one-year sabbatical from the Russian troupe. Given this and other recent personnel losses, all signs seem to be ominously pointing to a company in decline.
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