They call it by a different name each year, but the Carolina Ballet's annual presentation of a program of short non-story-based ballets is always a high point of the season for me. There's the excitement of experiment, and a freshness that comes from exploring in new territory. (The second week's program will be slightly different; see our calendar for details.) It's dance uncluttered, all light and motion and music.
This year's Ballet Festival opens with Choreocalligraphy, a suite of four dances by artistic director Robert Weiss, ballet master Marin Boieru, dancer Attila Bongar, and Weiss again. The work's concept came to Weiss upon hearing Jennifer Chang play the Chinese stringed instrument the Guzheng during an event last spring announcing the Carolina Ballet's tour of China, and the pieces were choreographed after the company's return. The idea of choreography and dancing being closely related to calligraphy is one that has been explored extensively by some Asian companies at the American Dance Festival in recent years. Weiss and friends do not take their work nearly so far as, say, Shen Wei in his "Connect/Transfer," and these short works, with their differing approaches, form a somewhat uneven group.
Weiss' "Moon in Jian Chang" opened, and was the only piece for which Ms. Chang played the accompanying music by Xiao Lin Xu — the remaining pieces were danced to recorded music. Cyrille de la Barre, as the Moon in a white unitard, descends to the stage on a rope, into a waiting group of moonbeans. Only the ineffable Hong Yang was able to glide smoothly from one angular position to the next, and it was rather a relief when the Moon took up his rope and fled to the sky.
Marin Boieru's "Three Scenes," aided by Ross Kolman's lighting, was more successful. Melissa Podcasy in red and four men in black moved through clearly ordered sequences and series of well-defined shapes. There were plenty of lifts for Podcasy, and some fine leaping for the men, with Eugene Barnes looking particularly good. This piece reminded me of wonderful ancient cast bronze Chinese vessels, their generous forms richly surfaced with raised ideograms in well-spaced rows. Of the group, this dance most clearly made the link between choreography and calligraphy.
De la Barre was back, still in white, along with Margot Martin, sheathed in a black unitard, for Atilla Bongar's "Spring in Mount Ling Shan." I don't know what spring or the location had to do with anything, but the dancers were fully in character as Ying and Yang. The dancing was sinuous, twisting, with many variations on the theme of strife and reconciliation. The choreography was fully meshed with the music, demonstrating once again Bongar's deep musical sensitivity.
The suite ended with an exciting piece by Weiss, "The Goddess of the Mountain," in which Caitlin Mundth was completely in command of the stage, her four Acolytes, and even of the Intruder, Pablo Javier Perez. It has been exciting watching her come into her power, but with this piece she has suddenly taken it to a much higher level. She is extremely plastic and well balanced, like a huge jaguar in the treetops, as she moves over the bodies of the men. Weiss has given her some steps that look nearly impossible: deep pliés on pointe that evolve into ominous swayings from side to side as she rises. Perez usually steals the spotlight whenever he's onstage, but here it was all Mundth's.
Another new work ended the program, but the cream and jam in the middle were two older pieces. Christopher Wheeldon's wonderful ballet The American, set to sections of Antonin Dvorák's The American String Quartet, was last performed by the company in 2003 (see http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2003/features/BalletPlus.html), and it was a pleasure to see it again — and of course, it was rather different this time, and had stronger landscape references. The ensemble dancing was splendid and sprightly, the six couples leaping and playing in a golden-grain colored world. Everyone was open, happy, in the wide sweeping space. Those were not stage smiles they bestowed on their partners. However, the lead couple, danced by Melissa Podcasy and Alain Molina, were different. She is perhaps a little too much of a diva for this part to completely suit. Molina, always warm, was paying attention to her, but she hardly looked at him, and her presence darkened the joyous tone created by the ensemble.
Molina had a more attentive partner in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux that followed. Lilyan Vigo can be as playful, skittish, rapturous and romantic as anyone could wish, and although she has grown immeasurably in strength and assurance since I first saw them dance together, Molina's quiet virility is still a fine foil for her delicate affect. Balanchine's choreography zips and zings through the sweet games of new love, with their peeping and hiding, their solo displays, their vaulting leaps of trust, their matched steps, twirling magic and dual victories. It was lovely dancing of the charming dance.
The evening closed with Tyler Walters' new modern ballet work, Kick, set to Light is Calling by Michael Gordon, and danced with tremendous energy and verve by four women and three men. Walters, who teaches at Duke, created the piece and set it on the Carolina Ballet with the aid of a fellowship from the New York Choreographic Institute. The raspy, propulsive music made for a rough auditory transition from the previous dance, but the work did end the evening with — well — a kick. An essentially cerebral (and academic) and kinetic composition, rather than emotional, it explores the idea and the action of kicking in many settings. It is a one-liner, but that one line is so multiplied, woven, stacked, braided and unraveled as to become a quite complex and satisfying composition. But the revelation here was Eugene Barnes. Earlier in the evening I had noticed his new control, especially in the jumps, and that he'd finally figured out what to do with his beautiful long arms — but here he was dancing. And that's what puts the power in the ideas.