“Contemporary Masters is an evening of three American modern dance geniuses: Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor,” says the Washington Ballet’s Julie Kent. “These three dance innovators really changed the trajectory of 20th-century dance, [and] we’re really excited to introduce this choreography to our company and to our audiences.”
Until now, the company had never presented any work by Cunningham, a towering figure in modern dance, and only two by Morris and Taylor, in large part because modern dance and ballet are two very different fields of movement.
“These three men are all modern dance choreographers,” Kent says. “The bulk of their work is not really accessible to ballet dancers.” Still, she points out that the works in this program “can be realized with authenticity and with correct style and dynamics by artists that are classically trained.”
Victor Barbee, the ballet’s associate artistic director and also Kent’s husband, further notes that each choreographer’s individual style shines through, no matter how traditionally unballetic it may be.
“In Cunningham’s piece, Duets, the dancers are barefoot, which is a standard modern dance company idiom. [Morris’s piece] is done in pointe shoes, which is obviously very specific to ballet. And Paul Taylor’s Company B is in soft dance shoes — a soft shoe with a heel on it that looks a bit more like a shoe that a normal person would wear walking down the street. You have three quite distinct representations.”
He adds that all three of the ballets “are great masterpieces,” while cautioning against referring to them as ultimate representations.
“It would be difficult, for instance, to say which is the best painting that Monet or van Gogh did. [These dances] are just among a number of great works that these choreographers did.”
Barbee makes another analogy to fine art to drive home the point of the program. “Rather than having to go to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to see [a masterpiece], occasionally they take the work on tour” — by partnering with other museums around the world for greater exposure and appreciation.
“It’s similar with ballets like this,” he says. “You want Washington, D.C. audiences [to have] the chance to see these great ballets.”
Kent and Barbee — both former celebrated principal dancers at New York’s American Ballet Theater, where they worked together for three decades — are relishing their move to D.C. and the Washington Ballet.
“Washington is a great city, and we think a great city needs a great ballet company,” Barbee says. “A ballet company the nation’s capital can be proud of: That’s a very worthwhile and fulfilling goal.”
Contemporary Masters premieres Wednesday, Oct. 31, and runs to Nov. 4, at Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $125. Call 202-547-1122 or visit washingtonballet.org.