A rescue mission to the underworld, a moment of madness, a fatal mistake: the tragic story of Orpheus, the lyre-playing son of Apollo, and of his wife Eurydice has remained as popular among modern choreographers as it was among ancient poets and craftsmen. Balanchine, for example, found it a lifelong source of inspiration. In 1936, he staged a version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with the Metropolitan Opera and his American Ballet Ensemble, relegating the singers to the orchestra pit. (It was only performed twice.) In 1948 he premiered Orpheus with new music by Stravinksy, while his 1976 ballet Chaconne, an abstract work, was performed to excerpts from Gluck’s opera; both are danced regularly to this day. Just before the pandemic, the National Ballet of Canada premiered the controversial Orpheus Alive by Robert Binet, a gender-swapped mash-up of classical ballet, contemporary dance, and drama. Though its climactic underworld scene was striking, audiences were disenchanted when the lead dancer started speaking into a microphone.
Lucky for us, Dana Genshaft’s eighteen-minute Orpheus, one of two new works created for the Washington Ballet’s NEXTsteps digital season finale, streaming from June 18, is a subtler interpretation. It is the second work for the company by Genshaft, a former soloist with the San Francisco Ballet (the first, Shadow Lands, premiered in 2019). Her sensitive approach to character and her controlled use of contemporary movement preserve the myth’s emotional power, and she will undoubtedly be an exciting choreographer to follow over the next few years.
Orpheus begins in a blue-tinged underworld. The shade-like corps, dressed in thin silver netting, performs undulating arm movements as ocean waves sound in the background. Orpheus (Gian Carlo Perez) emerges first, and then Eurydice (Katherine Barkman); within the first few minutes they lock eyes—the horror!—before being plunged into darkness. This is not a revisionist tale, nor is it a straight retelling. Instead, Genshaft does something in between that is more resonant: she cuts out any narrative buildup and narrows in on the moment of Orpheus’s fatal error. She also manipulates time, sometimes slowing down, speeding up, and rewinding, creating a heady experience that rewards multiple viewings.
The myth itself sets peculiar restrictions on the choreography. In order to save her, Orpheus must not look at Eurydice, so his love cannot be expressed in any of the usual ways: generous lifts, catches, embraces. Genshaft instead creates an anti–pas de deux, in which the two dance together without touching or making eye contact. At one point, Barkman leans into a deep arabesque, almost a penché, while Perez’s forearm is outstretched, but she never grabs on, and they both fall away. In another moment, the pair dances around each other with increasing intensity, Perez even completing multiple “540” jumps, an extreme martial arts–inspired move resembling a barrel turn. Barkman maintains a chillingly blank expression and dances as though compelled by external forces; she is trapped, of course, with little say over her fate. Her technical virtuosity enhances this illusion, as she can perform balances and extensions that seem just beyond the realm of possibility.
Genshaft combines classical and contemporary vocabularies; there are side lunges and deep backbends, swift attitude turns, and startling changes of direction. Orpheus experiences moments of despair, but it is never long before he is revitalized by the corps. As the ballet progresses, the lighting (designed by Joseph Walls) changes gradually from gray-blue to orange, then yellow, and the music speeds up; by the final sections, the corps is energized, daring, and hopeful, sunning themselves on a single beam of warm light.
For a story that warns against the loss of self-control, however, the “movie magic” bits needed more restraint—the superimposed shots, suggesting the regrettable scenes playing over in Orpheus’s mind, were unnecessary, given the depth of Perez’s performance.
There was no darkness at all, literal or metaphorical, in Silas Farley’s Werner Sonata, filmed on a bright day in Fairfax County, Virginia, at Wolf Trap National Park’s outdoor stage. Farley surprised the dance world last year when he announced that he would be retiring from the New York City Ballet corps at the age of twenty-six. (Most ballet dancers, if they manage to stave off injury and burnout, choose to dance well into their mid-thirties.) Farley is a familiar face to fans of the company. He cut an endearing figure in the docu-series city.ballet, filmed in 2014 at the beginning of his career, and he remains the host of the City Ballet podcast, “Hear the Dance.” This July he takes over from fellow ex–City Ballet dancer Jennifer Ringer as Dean of the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute at the Colburn School, a performing arts institution in Los Angeles.
Werner Sonata, named for the accompanying composition for violin and piano by New York City–based composer Kyle Werner, is Farley’s first major work for a professional company. Fourteen dancers in minimalist costumes perform spritely jumps and swift travelling turns in this gentle and refined piece. Farley makes wonderful use of the dancers’ upper bodies; a repeated motif has them circling one hand over the other, perhaps echoing the mime for “shall we dance” used in traditional story ballets.
There were some excellent solos in this performance—Ayano Kimuro’s effortless turning sequences were especially delightful. One of the most intriguing parts, however, with no slight to Werner’s score, was the silent second section, in which four dancers, barefoot on the grass, cycled through a slow adagio sequence in a circle, like Greek statues brought to life. Perfectly suited to the medium of film, the Cage-esque accompaniment captured sounds from the nearby trees and the dancers themselves: birds chirping, leaves rustling, skirts swishing.
The other group dances were less thrilling and at times it felt as though Farley had created a series of individual variations, with little uniting them, rather than a cohesive ensemble piece. There was a multitude of beautiful moments, but much was fleeting and fragmented. With so much going on at once, it was difficult to focus the eye; each of the components, however lovely, suffered for it. Pacing was another issue. Farley has many good ideas, and I wish he would pursue a few of them more deeply.
In the program notes, the choreographer describes how both he and Werner “have a similar calling to our art forms to embrace the classical tradition with a sense of renewal.” It will be interesting to see what he can do moving forward with a proper toolbox of stage lights, sets, live orchestras, and in-person audiences. Great ballets take time to evolve: Balanchine created more than four hundred works, after all, constantly reworking and restaging his oeuvre to produce the group of masterpieces we know today.