If, as the songs say, the scent of love is in the air, then the England studio at the Washington Ballet has been converted into a veritable perfumery. The fragrance of ardor comes in a variety of bouquets, among them the tang of infatuation, the musk of lust and the lingering trace of intoxicating, Dionysian desire. Happily, artistic director Septime Webre has assembled an assortment of equally diverse dancers with a sommelier’s precision for “7×7,” the final and most satisfying program of the company’s season.
Currently running now through May 16th, the mixed rep features seven new works by seven different choreographers, each one seven minutes long. The theme, as was mentioned, is love presented in gorgeous spectrums that perhaps only the late Est?e Lauder would have dreamed up.
Housed in an intimate lobby and dance studio, the romantic transformation can be credited to the wonders of interior decorating. Light fixtures in curvy shapes hang from the rafters, silky scrims line the walls and plush couches and circular rugs fashioned in Technicolor fill the space so that it resembles a living room out of the Plastic Fantastic 60s (think Austin Powers’s pad). One may need to be reminded the reason for their visit is not to flash back; it’s not always easy, given that some of the interim music comes from David Bowie. But dance is the raison d’etre of the evening, and, for the most part, the product lives up to the promise of its packaging.
The opening piece choreographed by Trey McIntyre is casual and playful, bringing to mind the recent ABT performance of “Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison.” Like that work, the ballet vernacular is softened by a modern streak: it’s less precise but just as thoughtful as something out of Mark Morris’s playbook. Noteworthy are John Jordan and Michelle Jimenez in one of the pas de deux.
Next on the bill is a gentle duet that, despite the contrasting dance genre, still evokes the halcyon days when Fred and Ginger used to float on air. Elizabeth Gaither, formerly of ABT, has a lovely, musical line. She effortlessly hangs and weighs on every dulcet piano chord even when the choreography (reminiscent of Nacho Duato’s work, with a couple Stromanesque twirls for good measure) runs out of ideas. It’s a swoon-worthy performance.
Donald Byrd spikes the punch with a hungry, carnal work devised to remind us that although the heart is the engine of passion, it is the libido that gives it fuel. The first pair suggests mating jaguars: they dig their hands at the floor and paw at each other. In particularly witty form, she “finishes” first, and he must do a great deal of work to earn her kiss before he departs. Jason Hartley demonstrates his aptitude for pantomime and his incredible stamina. He prowls the perimeter of the studio seductively and approaches his prey, a trio of unsuspecting girls who project the innocence of young gazelles. “Carnival of the Animals” this is not, and all for the better. It’s naughty but nice.
Act II is less successful. Starting things off is a dance by Lile York, with movement that is essentially a series of lifts and carries-from stage left to stage right, up stage and down-that doesn’t really lead anywhere. The costumes, rendered in beige, speak for the performance as a whole: smoothly tailored, but essentially colorless.
Jason Hartley dances his own choreography in a solo work inspired by (and clearly dedicated to) his wife. He pushes his arms out, leaping and churning to let us know the boundless love he has for her. At one point he even cups his hands, implying that he’s offering his heart. His intention overwhelms his invention, however, and what might have been an unqualified rhapsody feels more like a secret message coded only for them. But maybe it’s more appropriate that way. Whatever the audience response (and I’m guessing many will well up at least little bit), what is clear is that Mrs. Hartley is a lucky woman, and he a lucky man.
The piece by Albert Evans features a generous performance by Brianne Bland, who uses each and every step as a means to pique and gleam. Ms. Bland, who suggests a toy version of Kowroski, invests sturdy, fluid athleticism to her role. She extends into arabesque and smoothly glides with the aid of her partner (who, at the performance I was at, could use either some coffee or a little more expression). The piece itself, while not entirely interesting, still leaves enough for its principals to work with, and builds toward an odd denouement that has him drag and flop her across the floor. Both dancers’ audibly heavy breathing actually brings a palpable dramatic tension to the choreography: it is the kind of deep panting that only follows passionate bodily exertions.
Choreographer Vladimir Angelov could have been a mathematician. The Bulgarian wunderkind stages his work, the last of the evening, with the calibration of a geometric equation. Mathematics being a cold science, this may leave some initially dubious about the work: from all outward appearances, there isn’t much connection between the lone girl and her six suitors. And this is a dance about love? Well, it is. Oh boy, is it ever. Angelov is clearly more intrigued by-enamored with?-the synergy between the mind and body than the derivative routines of the heart. His dancers are put through a calisthenic process so rigorous, they occasionally seem to be playing catch up with the steps. One moment, they must bound and hop with their hands pointed above their heads, hinting that they’re prepared to procreate like bunny rabbits. The next moment, they are to soar (some swan) around the girl with their sumptuously glittery tiger-striped tops pulled over their shoulders like wingspans. Much of this is stage business, so it’s easy to get tripped up. Nobody does, thankfully, but I was holding my breath until they finished. Comfort is the key to this complicated work, and when the dancers are relaxed (but kinetic), we’ll be swept off our feet. Erin Mahoney affords long contours and sass to her segments. The downy Morgann Rose alternates in the role.
Like Mr. Hartley, “7×7” too wears its heart on its sleeve. Unabashed, to be sure, the sentiments that come across are occasionally syrupy, but wholly genuine. What the Washington Ballet lacks in size, it more than makes up for in a rosebud freshness that glows with the promise of things to come. This is a company easy to fall in love with.