Last weekend, we had a wonderful experience seeing how a community can be transformed through the arts.
The last performance of our Family Series tickets with The Washington Ballet was “Peter and the Wolf + Other Works.” When we looked at the tickets the day before the show, we saw that it was held at a new theater we had never heard of before called THEARC (Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Center) in Southeast Washington, D.C.
In general, the eastern parts of the District tend to have more crime and economic difficulties than the western parts so we had no idea what to expect coming to visit THEARC. When we drove in, we noticed there was a newer Metro station in the area (Southern Avenue) and the neighborhood looked surprisingly nice and well-kept. THEARC was in a block of newly constructed buildings housing a Boys & Girls club and other community facilities.
The best part, though was that there was…..gasp…..free parking!! This is practically unheard of in D.C. And you could park right outside the theater and just walk a few steps to the door. Wow! The theater was new and clean and there were friendly folks inside to greet us and take our tickets.
THEARC is a relatively small theater but smartly designed with one level of seating as well as some semi-raised seating along the sides. Our tickets were on the second row. I was surprised that we were able to sit so close.
The show began with a performance called Affinité, which was a mostly traditional-style choreography from Elias Lazar to the music of Mendelssohn. The dancers were from The Washington Ballet’s “Studio Company” who are the more junior dancers of the professional company. When some of the men came on stage, I was shocked at how young they looked. Some seemed no older than about 16 or 17 but their technique was so good that I guessed they had to be at least 20 or so to have that much discipline and control in their dancing. We were sitting so close that we could see every detail of their faces, costumes and technique—even the sweat droplets flying. My daughter commented that the purple, orange and pink costumes were all of her favorite colors.
The next piece was called “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Mozart” and featured dancers from THEARC’s ballet program. My children love to watch other children dance and it seems to motivate them strongly to see kids their own age doing incredible things. The piece started with the youngest dancers, showing a young Mozart with corps de ballet, and progressed to the teenage dancers and a teenage Mozart and even one of the professional studio dancers for the adult Mozart. Pianist Zinaiza Stepanova performed the music live for this performance which was an extra-special treat.
Every ballet school has its strengths and weaknesses. For THEARC students there were 3 key strengths: 1) They were absolutely relaxed in their movements. There is a tendency particularly in beginning ballet students to look very stiff and uncomfortable particularly in the arms and there was none of that in these dancers. 2) They are almost silent when landing their jumps. Most young dancers sound like a herd of elephants when they land their jumps because they don’t know how to roll through their feet yet. Even when a crowd of about 20 dancers from THEARC jumped together, there was almost no noise on the landing. Amazing! 3) They have terrific confidence and stage presence. I didn’t spot any shy students who seemed afraid or embarrassed to be on stage.
The teenage Mozart, Aeron Buchanan, was a standout and had wonderful technique. Also, the middle group of ballerinas (perhaps 8-10 years old or so) had an amazing photogenic quality. There were so many of them with the balletic ideal of long arms, long legs and long necks. They were gorgeous to watch. It is exciting to think about where all of these students may be in 10 years.
The studio company came back to perform “Classical Symphony in D” with music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography by Sunhee Kim. I loved the costumes for this piece. The women’s costumes were unique combinations of nude-colored material with white details. I loved the concept so much that I tried to draw it so I would remember. This concept could make for an incredible evening gown or even wedding gown.
The men wore white tuxedo-like outfits with pants and long tailcoats. Taking men out of traditional clinging tights for ballet is a great way to modernize the performance and make it more accessible to the audience.
Then the studio company performed “Blue Until June” with choreography by Trey McIntyre. I love this work and we saw parts of it before at the “Tour de Force” performance in February. I never tire of watching it. It was so interesting to see the change in the studio company when they performed this work. In the previous two performances involving classical music, the performances were solid but as an audience member, you didn’t quite get lost in the performance. You were always conscious that you were watching. With the music of Etta James in “Blue Until June” and the challenging choreography that combines both modern and classical ballet elements, the studio company shined and drew the audience in. I can’t imagine anyone performing this better.
After intermission, we enjoyed the showcase piece, “Peter & The Wolf.” They staged it sort of like a bedtime story being read to children. Arthur Espinoza read the story with great expression and the stage scenery consisted of very simple props of boards on wheels. The use of this minimalistic scenery was so clever. The dancers peeked around them, rolled them into different positions and even spun them around. A sheet of blue material was used to simulate water for the duck. My children loved the story and the performance. The story is a bit scary for small children, though. My 4-year-old was most worried when the wolf appeared and was chasing the duck. An adorable little boy about 3 sitting next to us with his grandfather became so terrified by the wolf his grandfather had to take him home.
In the end, it was wonderful to see this range of performance abilities and to be reminded of how much work and effort goes in to getting to the highest professional levels of performance. The very young dancers showed us how ability progresses steadily by age and the studio company showed us that even when you have all the core elements down, there is still that small, undefinable “it” and “life experience” factor that transforms execution of steps into a moving experience.
Overall, this was a very inspiring experience. It was wonderful to see an entire neighborhood transformed by the arts. The workers at THEARC and the students in the performance all seemed to appreciate and value how much THEARC had done for their community. The Washington Ballet is currently conducting a fundraiser through indiegogo to continue their work, including providing 400 D.C. public school students with ballet scholarships, paying for live piano accompaniment in their classes and funding a dance teacher for the public school system. You can learn more and donate at this link.
*I have no affiliation with The Washington Ballet.