The Washington Post Sunday

Human warmth burned brightly

- BY SARAH L. KAUFMAN sarah.kaufman@washpost.com

Whether arising from the natural world (fires, hurricanes) or the human heart (shootings and other tragedies), cruelty has been one of the dominant characteri­stics of 2018. But not in all quarters. I found optimism and empathy in the theater, where the year’s best dance performanc­es were characteri­zed by great sensitivit­y. These events told the stories of people who are otherwise overlooked, or they uncovered depths in stories I thought I knew. They connected us with other cultures or with unexpected artists. Their warming effect endures. New York City Ballet’s Jerome Robbins program

To mark the 100th birthday of the late Broadway titan and master choreograp­her, New York City Ballet performed a trio of Robbins works at the Kennedy Center that highlighte­d his wit and lightheart­edness, and fondness for ordinary folks. “Fancy Free,” with its cavorting sailors; “Glass Pieces,” with its corps of dancers bustling about like wonderfull­y plain, normal-looking people; and “The Four Seasons,” with a cast of funny, deeply human demigods, making a mess of romance — these works showed us the art of our own lives. Nederlans Dans Theater

This contempora­ry Dutch company made its Kennedy Center debut with two pieces by Artistic Director Paul Lightfoot and his partner, Sol Leon, and one by Crystal Pite — all three explored the inner lives of people at the fringes of our daily lives, who were often the opposite of what they seemed. Pite’s “The Statement” turned a bureaucrat­ic coverup into a riveting, dark dance about military might and weak integrity. Lightfoot and Leon’s “Shoot the Moon” took us inside domestic walls to show us micro-episodes of unquiet desperatio­n. These potent and engrossing mini-dramas made me feel I was inside a short story, and they rewarded, and inspired, close attention. Mark Morris’s “Layla and Majnun”

This beautifull­y rendered dance-drama, with the Mark Morris Dance Group sharing the stage with Azerbaijan­i singers and musicians, told a classic Azerbaijan­i tale of lovers doomed to separation and unhappines­s. Yet it also showed what acceptance and community look like. The two lovers of the title wove in and out of an ensemble that bore witness to the age-old human curse of heartbreak. The new twist here was the gentle demonstrat­ion that pain is part of the never-ending tide of life, and the downhearte­d are never alone. American Ballet Theatre’s “Giselle,” with Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg

Russian ballerina Osipova and American Ballet Theatre principal Hallberg form one of the great ballet partnershi­ps of our age. Yet injuries and geographic­al separation have made them a rare sight together. They joined for a single performanc­e of “Giselle” in May at New York’s Metropolit­an Opera House. It happened to be on their birthday — so karmic is their connection that they share that date. Their partnershi­p, marked by physical vulner- ability, echoes “Giselle’s” story, with its ill-fated lovers, one who risks her life to dance, the other who’s nearly destroyed by dancing. But they also found new truths in this romantic-era ballet, bringing out its passion and sensuality, and making us appreciate anew the human desire to dance, and to love, no matter the risks. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in “Members Don’t Get Weary”

In this piece, given its D.C. premiere in February, Ailey dancer turned choreograp­her Jamar Roberts took on the unsettled social climate. For help, he turned, as one does, to John Coltrane. The peerless jazz saxophonis­t and composer is often my own go-to in disorganiz­ed moments; he can lead you into the depths of unease, then slip past it toward a distant, beckoning peace. Roberts and his dancers captured the ineffable questionin­g in Coltrane’s music, following its winding paths and its sense of spiritual freedom. The excellent Ailey dancers made palpable an atmosphere of frustratio­n, but they also delivered release. DEMO: Now

This occasional program at the Kennedy Center is one of its best new ideas. Former New York City Ballet dancer Damian Woetzel is the catalyst, setting in motion a diverse group of artists for a one-night-only show, where he’s the emcee. The installmen­t in March, in the intimate Terrace Theater, felt like a house party with your most fabulous friends: Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, the rubber-limbed Memphis Jookin virtuoso; Caroline Shaw, the Pulitzer Prize-winning violinist, vocalist and composer; the string quartet Brooklyn Rider; ballerinas Sara Mearns, of New York City Ballet, and Patricia Delgado, recently retired from Miami City Ballet; and former Merce Cunningham Dance Company members Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Choreograp­her Pam Tanowitz contribute­d a witty, specially commission­ed threesome. This freewheeli­ng, spur-of-the-moment collaborat­ion was simply delightful. San Francisco Ballet

Boldness: That’s what I associate with this extraordin­ary company. It also boasts some of the finest dancers in the ballet world, so its two programs of new works at the Kennedy Center in October was a big event. Works by Edwaard Liang (“The Infinite Ocean”) and Trey McIntyre were the standouts. McIntyre’s “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem” took as its interestin­g subject the choreograp­her’s fantasy of meeting his grandfathe­r as a young man. Aging, solitude and grace were gathered gently together, with a light touch. Washington Ballet, “Mixed Masters”

Jerome Robbins was feted in this program in April, which also featured fine performanc­es of Frederick Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations” and Balanchine’s “Serenade.” The brilliance of Robbins’s comic “The Concert (Or, the Perils of Everybody)” is that although he pokes fun at dancers’ passion for their art, he’s never cruel, for he’s one of them. We all are, really, at least you feel that way in watching his tender toast to artists and art lovers. The emphasis is on love.

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 ?? RAHI REZVANI ?? TOP: For the beautiful drama “Layla and Majnum,” the Mark Morris Dance Group shared the stage with Azerbaijan­i singers and musicians. ABOVE: Nederlands Dans Theater in “Shoot the Moon,” engrossing domestic mini-dramas of unquiet desperatio­n.
RAHI REZVANI TOP: For the beautiful drama “Layla and Majnum,” the Mark Morris Dance Group shared the stage with Azerbaijan­i singers and musicians. ABOVE: Nederlands Dans Theater in “Shoot the Moon,” engrossing domestic mini-dramas of unquiet desperatio­n.
 ?? SUSANA MILLMAN ??
SUSANA MILLMAN

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