When the young George Balanchine (then Georgi Balanchivadze) was a student at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, as part of his uniform he wore a silver collar pin in the shape of a lyre, symbol of the god Apollo, leader of the Muses and thus a patron of the arts. That lyre reappeared in more than one of Balanchine's later ballets - notably in his radical early work "Apollon Musagète," now known simply as "Apollo." Balanchine is generally considered the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, and ballet companies everywhere are honoring his memory this year with full programs of his work. On February 12, in A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, the Carolina Ballet opened its two-program celebration of the 100th anniversary of Balanchine's birth with a selection that included this 1928 ballet, so appropriate for such a commemoration. (This program will be presented again on February 27 and 28.)
Balanchine is famed for his "plotless" ballets, but "Apollo" does have a plot of sorts, although I would not go so far as to call it a narrative. Apollo is the son of Jupiter, and the link between the arts and healing traces back to him: Apollo not only passes the arts on to the Muses, but he fathers the god of medicine. The ballet "Apollo" is concerned only with an elided version of Apollo's relations with the Muses, who are in fact his half-sisters, daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne, or Memory. These women were all goddesses of memory, and later, as Apollo's gift, of the arts and sciences, each with her own specialty. In the ballet, we see Calliope, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore - poetry, mime and dance - receive their gifts from Apollo, demonstrate them, and then ascend with him to Mount Parnassus.
As danced to Stravinsky's "Apollon Musagète" (1927-8) by Carolina Ballet stars Timour Bourtasenkov, Melissa Podcasy, Margaret Severin-Hansen and Lilyan Vigo, "Apollo" was one of the most beautiful things I've seen in my life. Danced on a nearly bare stage in the simplest of white costumes, "Apollo" is free from all surface amusements. You are undistracted from the purity of the lines, the astonishing shapes made by the confluence and separation of bodies, the lovely folding-unfolding-enfolding patterns, and the aesthetic ideals that drive them. There is no conflict in this piece, no push-pull, and not a lot of turning or leaping, but instead a sense of joyous flow punctuated with moments of ecstatic grace.
Bourtasenkov is not only a superb dancer but also extraordinarily talented at projecting states of inner being. Here he is noble, the epitome of the cultured god-man. It was wonderful to see these three beautiful ballerinas dancing together - they truly looked like goddesses, glimmering with power, knowledge and humor. Each had a charming dance to demonstrate her art (Vigo proving the perfection of her balance in a shimmering sequence that required her to keep one hand over her mouth throughout), and Terpsichore's pas de deux with Apollo is almost unbearably lovely, but it was the group dances that yielded the lasting images. The curtain falls on one of the most surprising and most memorable arrangements of bodies in all of ballet.
Even if it were not "about" Apollo, one would call this dance Apollonian. It is rational - and playful; lucid - and mysterious; vigorous - but not aggressive. Even the angular movements that set it firmly in its early Modernist period are imbued with beauty. The music, the libretto (also by Stravinsky), and the motions have a mythic majesty that communicates the nobility of the arts better than the millions of words uttered in their defense. When this dance was first staged, it conveyed the startling belief that the classical values of understanding, transcendence and pure actions could also be modern values, and we certainly need reminding of that today. But a contemporary audience for "Apollo" must realize that remembering is also a crucial value for the survival of civilization. As the daughters of Memory knew, we are nothing without our past. There would be no Carolina Ballet without Robert Weiss remembering Balanchine, and no Balanchine without the Imperial Ballet, and so on, back to the gods.
Were there no other dance on the program, it would have been enough. But the program was a multi-course feast. There was an unexpected appetizer, too. Actually, it was more like an effervescent pink cocktail in a fancy glass. Preceding "Apollo," the cocktail was a delightful short work danced to Valse Fantaisie in B Minor, by Mikhail Glinka. The lead dancers were Margot Martin and Pablo Javier Perez, with Kimberlyn Cook, Heather Eberhardt, Lara O'Brien and Lindsay Purrington. Martin is a very interesting dancer - strongly built, by no means willowy. On the 12th, she was even more crisp and precise in her movements than usual. She rarely inclines her head, keeping an impeccable line running straight up her spine to the base of her skull. But she's very flexible in the waist, and her arms are always relaxed and free. These qualities make her a good partner for the fleet and buoyant Perez. Between them they made the Valse an amuse-bouche that did not cloy on the palate and spoil the good dinner to come.
Following "Apollo" was "Prodigal Son," first performed in 1929. What a difference a year makes! While the clarity of line and precision of shape-making marks this as a Balanchine work following directly from the seminal "Apollo," the level of complexity as compared to the earlier work is astonishing. Danced to dark and driving music by Prokofiev (Op. 46), with sets and costumes from designs made by Georges Roualt for the original production, "Prodigal Son" is a nearly overwhelming experience. There is no tender unfolding here: the entire piece is an extended exploration of opposing forces. The family - the world. Tradition - newness. Keep - leave. Attract - repel. Pull - push. And it is danced white-hot by the fiery Mikhail Nikitine as the son and the incendiary Myrna Kamara as the Siren, who represents all the alluring unknown outside his father's gate. Viewers who saw these two in last fall's Carmina Burana will remember the chemistry between them, but this ballet gives Kamara a larger role, worthy of her mind-blowing talents. Their work is bolstered by Gabor Kapin and Christopher Rudd, as the Prodigal's friends, and another nine male dancers as his dissolute drinking companions, along with Caitlin Mundth and Lara O'Brien as his sisters and Edgar Vardanian as his father.
We pass from one surprising scene to the next on the Prodigal's journey, pulled along by the ineluctable force of desire, and descend with him into depravity and filth. I will not describe the scenes, because only your eyes can do justice to them, not my words. I will say that, having seen this dance, I now understand where Pilobolus came from. It is amazing - but we all know how the story ends, right? Yes, but Balanchine and Edgar Vardanian destroy our certainty. I'll never think about the story of the Prodigal Son quite the same way again.
For the program's final work, we move ahead to 1946 and "The Four Temperaments," danced to music commissioned by Balanchine from Paul Hindemith for the ballet (Theme with Four Variations). It made for a good ending because it combines some of the emotionality of "Prodigal Son" with the pattern and shape making of "Apollo." Three themes are danced first, each by a different pair; these are followed by sections for the melancholic, the sanguinic, the phlegmatic and the choleric tempers; and the finale incorporates the entire company.
I might pick out Gabor Kapin, lithely leading the melancholic dance, and Lilyan Vigo with Alfred Molina gorgeously exemplifying the sanguinic temper, along with Christopher Rudd in a nuanced presentation of the phlegmatic, as the most memorable dancers in the piece, but at another moment I might choose some of the others. This is a dance that depends on the strength of the company, and the Carolina Ballet has all the strength it needs.
The thing the Carolina Ballet does not have is enough money. What would and should have been a magnificent and total art experience was instead only a very good one - because the North Carolina Symphony was absent. For lack of $75,000, the ballets were danced to recorded music. It is not the same. And it is not good enough for a "world-class" region.
The Carolina Ballet presented the first performance of the second program of its Balanchine celebration on Thursday, February 19, in A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater - again, without the NC Symphony - and if anything, the dancing was even more glorious than it had been the previous week. But let me get this out and be done with it: sound quality matters! There was a bad sound problem on the 19th, a technical problem that no doubt was rectified before the next performance, but the real problem is the disjunction between the immediacy of the dancing and the distant music. There's no solution to that but money. Another 2500 tickets sold over the course of the run would about cover the cost of the orchestra.
And why those missing people are not packing the hall is a mystery to me. This is fantastic stuff!
Robert Weiss introduced the program using the metaphor of a meal, saying that the Allegro Brillante was the appetizer, and comparing it to fruit cocktail with sherbet. Led by Lilyan Vigo and Mikhail Nikitine, it was more like zabaglione with fresh raspberries: light, bright and deliriously delicious.
Allegro Brillante (1956) is danced to the first movement of Tchaikovsky's (unfinished) Piano Concerto No. 3. There is no set, just a blue backdrop and Ross Kolman's excellent lighting. Vigo wears a rose pink dress; the four other women wear aqua, while the men are good foils in gray tights and peasant-type shirts. In contrast to the dances in the first week's program, this is not high-concept choreography but dance for the joy and beauty of it, no other meaning required.
The eight-dancer corps is in motion when the curtain rises, and all is movement throughout. There are no pauses while shapes are made and sculptural poses held, but the timing is so good that although the dancers move rapidly, there is no sense of rushing. We see a good deal of the classical ballet vocabulary, but there's also the feeling of a country dance. The dancers exchange positions in lines or in ribbons; they form wheel and star patterns; they swing their partners. They appear to be having a great deal of fun.
Vigo and Nikitine sparkle. Visually they are a striking pair and their dance chemistry is great. They also have that elusive thing, a stage presence that makes the light look brighter wherever they are dancing.
The audience gasped and clapped when the curtain rose on La Sonnambula , a reaction to the dancers' fanciful costumes as they stood assembled in a grand diagonal across the stage. They looked like columbines blooming amid a bed of moss. Although Vittorio Rieti's music is based on themes from Bellini's opera of the same name, this La Sonnambula (1946) has a different story. And it is a dramatic and mysterious one - lightened with a comic solo by the athletic and supple Christopher Rudd as the Jester - with an unexpected ending. Weiss compared La Sonnambula to works by Edgar Allan Poe, but in addition to his kind of twisty foreboding, there is a surreal element here, most particularly in the strange pas de deux danced by Margot Martin and Pablo Javier Perez.
Lara O'Brien shines as the Coquette. She has grown phenomenally as a dancer since her first solo role as the Ugly Duckling last year. Here she is seductive and poised to a degree wholly unexpected from her earlier corps de ballet appearances. Although her elegant legs are hidden under long skirts, she uses her white arms and shoulders to mesmerizing effect to keep the Baron (Alain Molina), the Poet (Timour Bourtaseknov), and us all under her spell.
Her power is eclipsed, however, by the Sleepwalker, Melissa Podcasy, who captivates the Poet. Even if you've often seen Podcasy and Bourtasenkov together, and think you know their whole bag of tricks, you will be surprised by their duet. For both dancers, it is a feat of strength, endurance and flexibility, made to look like the easiest thing in the world. Podcasy is on pointe for nearly the whole time, and her powerful feet express everything her sleepwalking face cannot. They seem almost to speak. The final image of her, after the plot twists, with the Poet in her arms, is not one any viewer will soon forget.
The program closed with the gorgeous, laugh-out-loud fun of "Rubies," one section of Balanchine's 1967 Jewels . Danced to Stravinsky's Capriccio , for piano and orchestra, it was loud and bright and fast, show-offy and jazzy - very American. The backdrop glittered with red spangles in Kolman's warm light, and the red costumes flashed and glowed. But what really communicated the quality of the gemstones was the lapidary choreography, all intersecting diagonals and fine-cut angles, with the dancers moving like flashing light.
The whole troupe was on , but most especially Margaret Severin-Hansen and Gabor Kapin, lead dancers, along with the stupendous Myrna Kamara. I've never seen Severin-Hansen dance better. Her leaps were effortless, and once in the air she seemed to rise even higher, as if caught by a breeze. Kapin was right there with her, and both of them - indeed, all the dancers - smiled and sparkled with pleasure.
There may not be Higher Meaning here, or Great Artistic Purpose, but dances like this do something perhaps even more important. They make you so glad to be alive.