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"Balanchine & Mozart" program, 16-19 November 2006

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Robert Weiss's Carolina Ballet got its second repertory program of the season underway Thursday evening, 16th November, in Raliegh Memorial Auditorium, in Raliegh, NC. The program consisted of Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15, followed by three varied pas de deux, Balanchine's The Steadfast Tin Soldier and Agon pas de deux, with The Visitation, a new dance by Weiss between them, and then Balanchine's Who Cares? to conclude.

I had decided to visit Raleigh to see the "Balanchine and Mozart" program partly after reading some favorable comments about the company by a critic I'd come to respect, Jennifer Homans, in The New Republic for September 11 and 18, and also because Alicia Fabry, a dancer I'd come to admire in shows put on by the Ballet Chicago Studio Company, had joined the company. For a long time, her dancing had looked professional to me, so that whenever I saw her in those school exhibitions, I thought, "Won't somebody hire this girl?" Now somebody has, and I wanted to see it happen, even though she would have only minor roles at first. (You can see my posts about BCSC for some of her principal roles with them.) And of the seven programs Carolina Ballet is presenting this year, this one had the greatest proportion of Balanchine choreography, my usual favorite. So there are my prejudices and my caveats.

Margaret Severin-Hansen (First Variation) and Hong Yang (Third) were my favorites in Divertimento, so the variations didn't quite build up as they can. These two were so brilliant, especially Severin-Hansen, I would have liked to have seen her essay Sixth. (I gathered later that the original plan was along those lines, but last-minute cast shuffling was necessitated by injuries and resulted in some of the printed cast lists listing Randi Osetek in both principal and corps rank in this ballet.) Lilyan Vigo danced Sixth with clarity and control, but without much brilliance, Attila Bongar stood out as one of the Theme boys, and Timour Bourtasenkov managed the Fifth Variation with larger clarity than Alain Molina, who considerately tried to direct our attention to Vigo's entrance, which Bourtasenkov did not, as he made his exit. (The audiences were enthusiastic through every program, with reason.)

Severin-Hansen and Pablo Perez were the ones to see in Soldier, her part clearly and continuously visible and thus very effective, while Erica Sabatini's performance with Nikolai Smirnov came into focus and went out again; and Perez's jumps and impressively light barrel-turns were sensational. The tragic conclusion to this little ballet needed more point, though: Instead of just reaching down to recover his tin heart (which he had given to the Doll and which is now all that remains after she blows into the fire) because he knows it's there, the Soldier might more effectively have taken a moment to look slowly down and discover it for us.

Weiss's new pas de deux for Melissa Podcasy and Bongar, to the sighing, poignantly affecting slow movement of Mozart's A Major piano concerto (K. 488), has to do with her efforts to rouse and animate him; the choreography plays him for his size and, some of the time, weight, in interesting contrast with his other roles on this program. Rather smaller, she nonetheless does her womanly and athletic best, manipulating his arms, turning him on one of his feet (I saw from a closer seat that he actually supports her, showing Weiss to be not only musically sensitive but ingenious, too), embraces him, implores him, partners him, only to limited success, however, and at the end, he sinks back onto the chair in the middle of the stage, and she disappears behind him where she sprang up at first. This dance, with its apparent overt physicality on the woman's part, has some contemporary flavor as well as the traditional qualities of grace, flow and aerial existence.

Yang and Bourtasenkov danced the first three Agon pas pretty effectively, but without much of the intensity it can and really should have (they're shown in it on the program cover); but when Lara O'Brien (another Ballet Chicago alumna) and Molina danced the last two, it was gleaming and fresh while still remaining a little low-key. This and Divertimento were staged by Victoria Simon; their clarity of detail in the flow of movement, without exggeration, are very much to her and the dancers' credit.

Saturday evening's performance of Who Cares? brought a performance of "The Man I Love" by Vigo and Molina that was even more effective than their opening-night one, as though it had been worked on, and deepened. Severin-Hansen continued to connect everything she did very effectively without submerging detail or streamlining in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise", while O'Brien, in the second cast, sometimes fared less well. Molina held "Liza" together a little better than the generally superb Bongar, who danced it larger, in the second cast. In that alternate cast, Bongar partnered Severin-Hansen in "The Man I Love", and here this little dancer (five foot two, I'm told) showed yet another side of her large talent, although in "Fascinatin' Rhythm" she looked a little blurry in the accelerating conclusion and didn't really bring it to a stop before running off.

I have some quibbles about this program, though. (I can always quibble. Well, almost always.) Mainly, I found Ross Kolman's lighting design and Jeff A. R. Jones's set for Who Cares? too complicated and drawing attention to themselves and away from the dancing when they changed, even during numbers, especially the lighting. I'm much happier with designs which make a space for the dancers and then let them be the show. Nor did Jones's set put me in mind of a Broadway musical in line with the Gershwin Songbook used for the score, like the original one did. On the other hand, given the arctic blue backdrop for Divertimento, putting warm light on the corps while keeping diffuse white follow-spots on the principals, giving them high visibility, was, arguably, a way to warm up the stage picture. Steven Ruben's black slacks and white shirts, with untied bow ties, for the boys were a little disappointing to someone who knew the original costumes for Who Cares?, but I believe those were by Chanel, and permission to use them may not have been obtained.

The three pas de deux in the middle of the evening were well lit, and although the Christmas tree for Soldier looked hurriedly painted, someone remembered to show the choreographer's initials on the alphabet blocks under it. (The tree is in the center upstage and the fireplace, central to the outcome, is at the left in this production. Maybe the stage was too shallow for the Doll to make her exit toward the back.)

There were a few details in the choreography that bothered me, the main one being in the Agon pas de deux. Early on, there's a ghostly-sounding downward glissando played by open strings where I remember in the past seeing the girl bend down from her waist (often to the amusement of the audience), but both girls this time merely swept their left arms down and out to the side while remaining erect.

Following Balanchine's own later practice, the penultimate number in Who Cares?, "Clap Yo' Hands," for the three principal women, was omitted again this time.

As for that Gershwin score, we had listened all evening to pretty well-amplified orchestral recordings, which sounded better as the weekend rolled on, or as I got more used to the sound system, and then we got the Gershwin played on a piano, with some verve I must say, by Karl Moraski, one of the company's rehearsal pianists; I like "live" music as well as anyone, but I thought that an orchestral conclusion, even a recorded one, would have made a grander finale to the evening.

But never mind. What matters is the dancing, and this dancing mattered.

By the way, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium's balcony turns out to be behind the main floor seats, so the place to sit is the front of section H or, if you are tall, even better would be the back of section C. Of course, I mention this for those who would consider paying a visit to see this company. If you like your ballet "vibrant and full-bodied" (Homans) and "richly deserving of praise" (tempusfugit's impressively analytical 2004 review in this forum), you should.

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