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Review | New Washington Ballet dances try to solve puzzles of life and death

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Given what we’ve all been through recently with coronaviruses and violence, it’s not surprising that death and farewells were on the minds of choreographers at the Washington Ballet. For some time, “NEXTsteps” has been the name of the company’s annual series of new works. Yet for the program that opened Wednesday at Sidney Harman Hall and continues through Sunday, the idea of one’s literal next steps is also the pressing concern.

Three of the four dances on the program ask: What’s next, when life crashes around you? What the devil happens now?

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This is not to say that the overall atmosphere was heavy. “Where Do We Go Now,” a well-paced musing on life after death by South African choreographer Mthuthuzeli November, led us through a vivid, fractured flashback of romances, anxieties and unresolved questions. Yet these mostly solitary experiences were framed by an ensemble, a sympathetic community observing in the background, making it a shared journey. November, a member of the London-based Ballet Black, merged the bent torsos and stamping feet of African dance with languid ballet rhythms, bringing the strength of ancestors to mind. With a free, confident hand, he mined the expressive possibilities of both dance styles and made winning new harmonies.

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November also created the music, most notable for rich drumming passages, and designed the pleasantly drifty costumes in earth tones.

If you had to rate the most successful element of this program across the board, it was the costumes. These included a bombshell yellow gown for Sona Kharatian in “Moonlight,” a moving, rapturous finale to the longtime Washington Ballet member’s career and that of her excellent dance partner, Tamás Krizsa, who created the piece (and conceived the costumes). Krizsa, as gentlemanly in his choreography as in his dancing, placed all the emphasis on Kharatian, spotlighting her sensuality and effortless legato. Kharatian has always possessed an air of Golden Age glamour, and her casual sophistication here underscored the optimism of the tribute.

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Jillian Lewis’s updated, sexy Victorian silhouettes matched the quirky, lighthearted tone of Jessica Lang’s “Beethoven Serenade” (the one piece that didn’t deal with endings in some way). This work had the luxury of fine live musicians performing Beethoven’s Serenade for String Trio in D, Op. 8: Ko Sugiyama on violin, Allyson Goodman on viola and Charlie Powers on cello. The 15 brief, brisk movements drew generously on the dancers’ personalities, which was wonderful to see — particularly Wednesday’s winsome threesome in the eighth movement of Daniel Roberge, Katherine Barkman and Ayano Kimura. (The program features alternate casting throughout the run.)

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Inspired by the grief of her widowed grandmother, Texas-based choreographer Brett Ishida tackled a deeply poignant, poetic theme in “Home-coming.” A chorus of women in dramatic, ink-dark gowns by local designer Judith Hansen evoked the inescapable, surreal nature of mourning, and the turbulent subconscious of a partner left unexpectedly alone. At one point, the dancers shed their skirts to disclose an underlayer of lace encasing their bodies like a delicate web. There was an air of wildness and mystery throughout; was it memory alone that conjured the group of men who burst into their darkened space?

The women, tasked with prolonged pointework, were heroic in their stylish attire, which caught the slight glimmers of light, concealed and revealed the body, and contributed to this work’s visual power. Yet the music, mostly excerpts of movie soundtracks for “Moonlight” and “The King,” by Nicholas Britell, dominated and felt overly weighty, at odds with the dreamy, elusive sense that Ishida’s choreography evoked. Otherwise, the accomplishment was remarkable. This was a visceral, textural portrayal of a profound puzzle: how to reconcile physical absence with the lingering sensations of presence.

The Washington Ballet performs “NEXTsteps,” with cast changes, through June 26 at Sidney Harman Hall. washingtonballet.org.



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