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Balanchine -- By George! (29th January - 1st February 2009)

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(from Raleigh, NC) I've been here before. By way of disclosure, I came partly to look in on the career of Alicia Fabry, whose dancing I admired in Ballet Chicago's exhibition performances a few years ago. Ballet Chicago is essentially a school, and I thought Fabry's dancing was the best onstage. I wondered, Won't someone give this girl a contract? I realized that if someone did, I'd be inconvenienced to see her dancing. Now that someone has, I can't complain. I got what I asked for. And I picked this weekend because it was the program with the most Balanchine on it.

Carolina Ballet opened its mostly-Balanchine program with artistic director Robert Weiss's Jota Aragonese, to the Glinka music of several minutes' duration. To open a program with 12 of the company's 38 dancers was not a bad idea, but the choreography looked to me less responsive musically than the ballet Weiss made a year or two ago to a Stravinsky symphony for many of the company's men, who had nothing to do in Serenade on that program. Worse, the lighting was pretty dim except for the follow-spots for the principals or soloists.

But the dancing, as far as I could see, was quite the large and clear dancing that seems to be their style (with some exceptions to be noted), and I think the dancers deserved better lighting. (I hardly needed to search for Fabry in the corps because she was distinguished there by her supple and beautiful arms and generally, the completeness and finish of her dancing.)

After a pause, though, things brightened up in more ways than one with the pas de deux from Balanchine's Square Dance, given a suitably but not excessively gaggy rendition by Lilyan Vigo and Attila Bongar.

After intermission, La Sonnambula also looked quite good onstage as far as lighting, costumes, and set were concerned. (Scenery and costumes were credited to Pacific Northwest Ballet.) But while the dancing of this company looks secure, characterization and dramatic point are sometimes pretty weak. Lara O'Brien (another Ballet Chicago alumna) was telling in her premonitions both when the Poet (Timour Bourtasenkov) first appears and later as those earlier premonitions are about to be realized, and lovely as well as clear in her pas de deux with him, the first of the the big pas de deux in this strange, plotty ballet from "the master of the plotless ballet", and a conventional contrast to the later one, one of the strangest in the repertory, and in which Melissa Podcasy as The Sleepwalker brought out much of the agitation, or should I say, disturbance, in this role, which is sometimes made too smooth and tranquil to suggest a mind unhinged.

Where the performance fell a little short was in O'Brien's and Bourtasenkov's reactions to the offstage goings-on with the Poet and The Sleepwalker later; someone paying the slightest attention to the discordant outbursts in Rieti's music at those moments might wonder from the stage action what all the fuss was about, and Bourtasenkov's merely holding his dagger up for us to see as he heads off stage rather than gripping it in preparation for the attack (as I remember Shaun O'Brien did for Balanchine's company years ago) undercut the intensity of the tragedy here.

As the ancient Greeks knew, tragedy is best followed by comedy in the most general meaning of the term, a narrative with a happy ending, and so The Four Temperaments made a good conclusion to the program. (I don't know whether Mr. Weiss had ever heard of this ancient discovery or just relied on his own theatre instincts: Send them out happy!)

Barbara Toth danced First Theme just conscientiously with Martin Vignolo, substituting for Eugene Shlapko. With Lara O'Brien in Second Theme with Nicholas Hagelin, though, the dancing looked more like it was coming from within, and this was true of Hong Yang and Wei Ni's Third Theme, too.

Gabor Kapin's account of Melancholic Variation was not so full as some I've seen, but true; and he was flanked by Fabry's simple and direct dancing of one of the demi roles, just what it requires, opposite Erica Sabatini. By this time it was clear we were getting the text of "4T's" and not another caricature like the one shown by NYCB in Chicago a year and a half ago.

Nevertheless, Lilyan Vigo and Attila Bongar offered a less sanguine (i.e. less full-bloded) Sanguinic Variation than some I've seen, oddly contrasting their exuberant Stars and Stripes excerpt earlier, and Eugene Barnes had more than just the ability to balance forever on one foot that Phlegmatic Variation requires.

The last Variation, Choleric, got a fine, agitated realisation from Margot K. Martin: Just short of anger, heated, and good, and a little better integrated up and down her body than Colleen Neary in the "Choreography by Balanchine" video, where Neary's legs look a little independent, as they often did on stage, although, as Balanchine's dancers did, she danced very large. And then that expansive finale gathers itself into an optimistic conclusion for the evening...

Edited by Jack Reed
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(from Raleigh, NC) Quick impressions of Friday's program will be unfair, but I am running out to the Saturday matinee. The big difference for me was a better seat, right in the center line of the theatre, where the effect of the dancing hits me as I like it to, right between the eyes, instead of seeming to be for "those people over there".

With Jan Burkhard moving up to the principal woman's role in Jota Aragonese, Alicia Fabry became a demi, the first dancer on stage, and not only her usual crispness but also, in this ballet only, a grandeur in her movement was just right for it.

Margaret Severin-Hansen and Gabor Kapin's took over the Stars and Stripes pas de deux, perhaps containing the humor more within the flow of the dance.

La Sonnambula was led by the same principals, with similar effect to opening night, but Fabry turned up as one of the girls in the "Pastoral" divertissement (the girl on the left), delineating it quite clearly and with a slightly "frilly" style appropriate to a divertissement, the grand manner of the Jota left behind there.

Fabry also came into "First Theme" of The Four Temperaments, and this was something: The series of classic, unadorned poses was a little like a tour of a sculpture garden (except stone or concrete has little of the aerial about them), huge in effect, owing I suppose to a classical exactness in the alignment of her limbs; but Fabry's rather clipped phrasing in getting from one pose to the next was unusual in my experience and seemed to me at odds with the music's quality of movement there, which is serenely legato, not at all staccato.

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(from Raleigh, NC) Saturday afternoon's program brought Hong Yang into the large role of The Sleepwalker in La Sonnambula. The "disturbance" Vigo had given us was scarcely to be seen, but Yang gave us in its place something else to enjoy, a lovely, ethereal gliding across the stage -- her Sleepwalker was nonetheless "remote", as she should be. With Yang, the cast brought in Dameon Nagel as the Baron and Randi Osetek as the Coquette, and while she was lovely in the pas de deux with Attila Bongar's Poet, I felt she and Nagel reacted even less to the frightful off-stage goings on between The Sleepwalker and the Poet than the other cast had.

The is a consistent lighting mistake in this production, I think, which also blunts a dramatic point: When the party has exited left, leaving the Poet alone again on stage, the music shifts mood, beginning the scene with the pas de deux of the Poet and The Sleepwalker. If I remember correctly, watching Balanchine's company years ago, we got the light of what would prove to be The Sleepwalker's candle in the second story of the tower on our left at this point, and watch it gradually make its way across the set until, our curiosity -- including the Poet's curiosity too, after a moment -- heightened by this mysterious progress of the light, we suddenly saw The Sleepwalker make her entrance. Later, after the tragedy has played out, she would retrace her path, with The Poet in her arms. Here in Raleigh, though, we only see the light descend the tower on the right; in other words, there is little suspense build-up for The Sleepwalker's entrance, although the end of her journey is implied as light travels from right to left above.

But finally at the end I'm slow to applaud not because this production is weak but because of the strength of the effect on me of this tragedy: It's not just a love triangle or something, and I'm left a little stunned, every time, by its implied immensity. That says something about Balanchine's art and the truth of this presentation of it.

The Four Temperaments opened in the afternoon with the large implications of Fabry's vividly correct poses again and with Gabor Kapin's effective lead in Melancholic Variation, but in the evening these roles were taken over by Barbara Toth and Pablo Javier Perez, who were less effective for me. (Perez had been the good, quirky Jester in the Sonnambula divertissements, a very different kind of role.) Phlegmatic Variation was taken over at both performances by Wei Ni, who had given Third Theme a strongly "classical" rendition, with the similar Yang, but his solidity in Phlegmatic was less effective for me than Eugene Barnes's softer flexibility had been. But Caitlin Mundth's "Choleric" in the evening was as effective as Margo K. Martin's was in the afternoon.

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At the Sunday matinee, I discovered while watching Jota Aragonese that if I stare at Barbara Toth, one of the demis, I can still take in Alicia Fabry's dancing across the stage from Toth, but not the other way around; this says something about the relative clarity and visibility of their dancing. Jan Burkhard's dancing in the principal woman's role was, again, fine and flowing, not overdone.

In the Stars and Stripes pas de deux, Margaret Severin-Hansen again danced well, not too overstated (this satire can not only stand some overstatement but requires it, IMO), but again in her variation she didn't circle the stage just before the accelerando diagonal, but, as though knowing she had to be up stage to start the diagonal, she merely looped about the center; this is too bad, because her secure turns would have been more visible to us laid out around even a small circle. Gabor Kapin was again the partner with just enough egotism for the role.

Hong Yang and Attila Bongar replaced Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov in the weekend's last performance of La Sonnambula, with Alain Molina's Baron and Lara O'Brien's well-faceted Coquette; this is not a simple role, and O'Brien inhabits its parts well. I thought Marcelo Martinez made of the Jester (in the divertissements) a more developed character then Perez had, giving his performance some continuity and so, more and greater cumulative effect.

In The Four Temperaments, Hong Yang and Wei Ni's Third Theme stood out above the first two, and Gabor Kapin's Melancholic Variation was more effective than Perez's had been earlier in the weekend. Lilyan Vigo's Sanguinic variation needs only to be more bold, larger (but not harder of attack). Watching her, I recalled an open rehearsal of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet I attended in Washington a few years ago, when a dancer moved in a clear, beautifully phrased way, but not so remarkably (for her troupe). "Huge!" said Farrell, over the public-address system, and the girl repeated the movement but so help me, seemingly having grown three or four inches, and the effect was even stronger and more beautiful.

Eugene Barnes and Margot K. Martin again gave us their effective renditions of Phlegmatic and Choleric Variations, and when they reappeared for solo applause at the end, the audience made clear that it liked them the best too.

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