The importance of the reverence that falls to great masters in all the arts can often obscure how appealing and accessible their art can be. I thought about these and other complications of the championship when I saw the Washington Ballet program "Contemporary Masters", works by Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, in Sidney Harman Hall.
This pleasant program, which runs throughout Sunday, is a tribute to three giants of modern dance with works suitable for ballet dancers. This is not surprising: two of the pieces were first produced for ballet companies American Ballet Theater first premiered Morris in 1988 with "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes," and Taylor founded "Company B" in 1991 for the Houston Ballet and his own company. Cunningham produced "Duets" for his company in 1980, but it has some crisp, linear ballet elements, mainly in the dancer's raised carriage and in the stretching of the legs and feet.
There is buoyancy and wit in each of the works, with a spirit of airy playfulness in Morris's; the circus colors and bold, unexpected physical forms in Cunningham's and the Swing era of Taylor. "Company B", accompanied by a mix of pop songs from the 1940s, recorded by the Andrews Sisters, is also extremely serious, as the cast is jitterbugs while men go to war. Sometimes death strikes in the middle of the polka, a reminder of the sudden, irrevocable transformation of ordinary people. By juxtaposing optimism and tragedy, "Company B" becomes a character study of America at war, eliciting some profound truths from this experience.
The qualities of dignity and penetrating sharpness that are essential to Taylor's genius were not always noticed on Thursday, though Kateryna Derechyna with her tangible desperation in "I can dream, can not I?" It will never be another you ", were particularly memorable.
It's been a decade since the company danced Morris' Drink to Me, and it's great to see it again as pianist Glenn Sales performs the charming Virgil Thomson etudes accompanying him. It looks deceptively simple, but the demands for speed, lightness, and lyricism have been unevenly met.
The most successful assay was "Duets". Its underlying aesthetics are so good that this work should be studied by artists and designers interested in modernism or crafts of all kinds. The unusual color combinations are somehow logically connected. Torsos flex and twist in ways that defy or exceed ordinary human positions. The effect, however, is elegantly clean and organic. The curves and lines of the body are often held for a moment so that the eye can see the shapes in the room. The choreography tests and shows the extended extensions and the balance of the dancers.
These tests were met with great care and attention to detail and were always enjoyable to see. To pick up the topic of the program, mastery is another matter. With such a diverse selection of works, both in this series and throughout the season, is the Washington Ballet trying to be an all-rounder, a master of none? Getting familiar with the different approaches and dance languages of Morris, Taylor and Cunningham is a difficult challenge for a short series of performances. These dancers work hard to master the big challenges, quickly learning a mixed repertoire.
This broad repertoire may be a precarious choice even for larger, more affluent companies that have chosen such an approach from the start, such as ABT, the former home of Washington Ballet director Julie Kent. Similar questions have long been asked about ABT: What is the dominant style? What is the special know-how nobody else has? Why should potential customers look for this company among others?
Of course, ABT's prestige and large barn of artists at the top of the profession can answer in a different way than the Washington Ballet. The questions, however, are of importance to any art organization that presents itself in a crowded landscape of decisions for inspiration and transcendence in everyday life.
The Washington Ballet performs "Contemporary Masters" at Sidney Harman Hall until Sunday. washingtonballet.org.