It is not often that I have a chance to see two casts of a ballet back to back, but the weekend of Sleeping Beauty performances at Carolina Ballet provided just such an opportunity. As an added bonus the performance featured live orchestra, and despite a few missed notes, the energy coming out of the pit carried over onto the stage and into the audience. Al Sturgis kept the music moving, and while some of the passages seemed on the slow side nothing detracted from the high quality of the dancing on stage.
One of the most notable things in this production, at least to me, was the stylistic consistency. It was clear that the soloists and principals had been coached, as nuances were consistent throughout both casts. If the corps seemed to lack "weight" in their character-inspired entrances (polonaise, mazauka, etc.) at least the shape of the dancing was more or less the same. The other quibbles I had are really very minor- I found the sets rather one-dimensional and the colors a bit too bright- bordering on cartoonish. The choreography did not always flow from one section to the next....the traditional choreography was kept for the main set pieces, but many of the group dances had been re-created and looked to be from a different era. Not that the choreography was bad- in fact, the whole ballet seemed to have a lot of dancing and movement, which was nice. I just found the difference between the classical and (presumably) neoclassical jarring.
And on to the dancing....one thing is that, with the occasional exception, all of the dancers seemed to truly believe the roles they were dancing. They were thoroughly committed to the story and the picture they were trying to create. Mikhail Nikitine- a former Principal dancer appearing as the King, brought weight and gravitas to his passages, and he had a real rapport with the Princess Aurora as well as his Queen. The fairies each clearly showed the steps and music, and Ashley Hathaway, Saturday evening's "Candide," bearing Beauty as her gift, brought true radiance onstage with her, each step clearly shaped and yet melting into the next- I would love to see her in featured roles more often! Elice McKinley looked to be having the time of her life as the hyper-energetic "Canari," never missing a step. As "Violente," both Cecilia Iliesiu and Alyssa Pilger were wonderful. Pilger was quite shocking in her clarity and attack, making the movements clear and big. Iliesiu is a much taller girl- long legs and arms, so to see her move so quickly was wonderful. However she also contrasted that quickness with softness and fluidity, bringing nuance and layers to what can easily be a one-dimensional exercise in attack. Both dancers had confidence in spades, and, an example of the coaching I presume, etched the shapes of the last diagonal with such ferocious clarity that I believe I will never forget the details of that particular passage.
As the Lilac Fairy Sunday afternoon, Lara O'Brien was everything one could hope for. Warm, generous, strong, brave, wise....these qualities came through in her dancing as well as her mime. Her solo was technically secure and wonderfully musical. O'Brien pulled double duty during the run, appearing as the evil Fairy, Carabosse, Saturday night. What fun it must have been for her to be on both sides of this battle! Her evil fairy was so dynamic and riveting that she very nearly stole the show. Her Carabosse exuded malicious intent, her long fingers pointing malevolently at those who forgot her. Powerful, manipulative, this fairy uses her evil to make sure she always gets her way. Equally effective and compelling, and yet totally different, Lindsay Purrington in the same role Sunday afternoon, presented a character full of self-loathing. Her evil behavior derived from a lifetime of mistreatment; the dark child who has always been made fun of. Each Carabosse was paired with a Raven- a male escort who shadows and reinforces Carabosse's actions. Eugene Barnes, paired with Purrington, thrives on this type of role. Oliver Beres, paired with O'Brien, danced better than I have ever seen, and equalled O'Brien in every way.
The Act 3 wedding guests were limited to Puss-n-Boots and the White Cat, the Bluebird and Princess Florine, and the Fairies. The Fairies presented the variations typically danced by a group of Precious Stones, and I was happy to see them all again. Adam Crawford Chavis, on Saturday night, distinguished himself as the Lilac Fairy's Cavalier. Tall and handsome, Chavis is another dancer who completely comments himself to the role. Musical, and a big mover, he persevered with what sounded like a slow tempo. If his jumps landed heavily it was only because he was determined to remain aloft as long as possible, milking every possible second in the air. Nikolai Smirnov, as Bluebird, jumped and flitted around the stage, dancing all of the steps he was given- every single entrechat six- without a trace of fatigue. Lindsay Turkel, as Princess Florine, was a pleasant surprise- elegant and musical with a bit of spunkiness mixed in. Yet another dancer of which I hope to see more.
Saturday evening, Princess Aurora and Prince Desiree were danced by Jan Burkhard and Marcelo Martinez. Martinez, a mesmerizing artist in contemporary roles, seemed a bit reserved and careful-particularly in his solos - as if he were still finding his way through the role. His interactions with other characters didn't always read honestly- coming across more as something he was told to do as opposed to something he wished to express, but I suspect he will grow into this with time. His partnering, however, especially in the Act 2 dream scene, was sublime.
Jan Burkhard, as Aurora, another fantastic dancer, also seemed to be finding her way through the role, but what a pleasure to be able to witness her on this journey! A dancer with strong, free and expressive technique, musicality, line and intelligence, she only needs time to grow. I particularly enjoyed her in Act 2- her movement seemed to emanate from a very quiet, still place, and many times it looked as if she might simply shimmer and then vanish in her partner's hands. Throughout the ballet there was a warmth about her that made her glow from inside.
Sunday afternoon brought Richard Krusch and Margaret Severin-Hansen as Prince Desiree and Princess Aurora. Krusch is very gifted- flexible, yet strong, beautiful lines through the feet and legs. While I sometimes find him rather inexpressive, I enjoyed him here. He was warm in a subtle way and responsive to his ballerina. His dancing was technically beautiful and secure, too.
And what can I say about Margaret Severin-Hansen? A long time Principal dancer, she has gone from strength to strength in roles across the repertoire. I expected great things. What I didn't expect was for Severin-Hansen to surpass anything I could have imagined. Her first act, in particular, was the most wonderful I have seen. The steps flowed out of her as if she was creating them on the spot, and as the act went on, her dancing only became bigger, fuller and richer- the coupe-jetes with which Aurora circles the stage after having pricked her finger grew in size as she became more frantic and frightened. The rose adagio brought tears to my eyes simply from the joy she expressed- pulling as much out of every detail as she could. During the Act 2 Vision solo, she seemed to hover above the stage without touching the floor. By Act 3, the size and scope of her dancing was still increasing- balances lingering longer when possible and speed increasing as needed, and yet still so delicate and feminine.
If at times the stage seemed a bit too empty- well, Carolina Ballet is not a big company, and as I mentioned earlier, the corps sometimes seemed to be not as comfortable with or committed to the nuances, but they will learn. The company is such a wonderful group of dancers- they all seem so eager to do whatever they can to get things right. And from what it looks like, they have someone who can help them with that.