The first time one is let down by a beloved is always a grievous moment. At first there is incredulity, then irritation, then forgiveness - but the first fine unquestioning faith has now passed, and the expectation of disappointment will always henceforth shadow admiration. That sequence played out on opening night of the Carolina Ballet's seventh season in Fletcher Opera Theatre on September 23. Perhaps it is unfair to expect any group of artists always to perform gloriously - but the Carolina Ballet has put us into the habit of thinking glorious is normal. Last season's Balanchine celebration, in particular, led us to believe that this season's continuation would thrill and delight.
So it was a painful jolt for the first work on the first program of Balanchine: Masterworks to be so rough and leaden. Danced to J.S. Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, music which seems almost to be composed of mirrors, "Concerto Barocco" should have been sparkling and crisp like reflected light. On opening night, alas, whole passages were muddy and awkward, with the corps showing very little affect or energy. Heather Eberhardt, normally as effervescent as one could wish, danced like her toe shoes were caked with clay. The work was saved by the graceful Hong Yang, whose exquisite technique and unflappable serenity served her very well in the circumstance. She was partnered by Dameon Nagel, who has a new strength and nobility of presence but was not quite able to appear confident and at ease through all of the very large number of demanding lifts. He will surely grow into the role, however, and he very much deserved the rose Hong Yang presented to him during the curtain call.
"Reflection," set to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's somewhat mournful "Méditation," followed. This is a Robert Weiss dance, made for Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov; it is not a Balanchine piece, although Balanchine had also used it for a pas de deux he choreographed for two of his principal dancers. Here it was not the choreography that was impressive, but the dancing. Podcasy and Bourtasenkov are quite wonderful. One forgets their power from time to time. Although Weiss's steps were not very exciting, he did give the dancers plenty of opportunities to do what they do so well together, which is to take large risks and to show us what trust looks like.
Things picked up considerably in the second half, with Balanchine's "Tarantella," danced to Louis Moreau Gottschalk's happy music. The conceit is that Italian street dancers are competing for audience approval as they dance this rapid peasant dance - it is not so much an art piece as an amusement. It is a charming, gossamer thing, spun out at high speed with an abundance of playful, flirtatious details. Pablo Javier Perez and Margaret Severin-Hansen were smashing in it, all smiles and swagger and fast fancywork. The work is a crowd-pleaser, but I think the roaring audience approval came partly from relief at knowing they weren't to suffer all night.
The evening closed with Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations," set to music from Don Sebastian by Gaetano Donizetti. It gave us our first look at two new company members: the springy and supremely self-assured Cyrille de la Barre, who partnered Lilyan Vigo, and Alessia Gelmetti, whose grace and crisp footwork will undoubtedly be featured more and more often. The rest of the troupe was in good form; Eberhardt had recovered herself, and Lara O'Brien was charming in her playful mood. "Donizetti Variations" is a lovely work, but it seemed an odd close to the evening because it is essentially a series of pretty sequences strung together without much éclat . Certainly, the last scene draws together the themes of the previous ones, and all the dancers have a fine final moment, but the dance does not have the robust wholeness or sense of completeness that would have made a better finish for the program.
That said, nothing can dim the pleasure of watching Lilyan Vigo. Over the six years of Carolina Ballet's existence, we have watched her change from a noticeably talented young girl to a delightful and artfully accomplished dancer. On the 23rd, she appeared before us as a fully-fledged ballerina. It was a lovely sight, fully deserving of the adoring audience response. Vigo is in that perfect period where the authority of age and practice are balanced with the artless, joyous supple beauty of youth. Her natural elegance will carry her once youth is gone - but see her now. Beauty like this is not offered us every day.
The second program of Balanchine: Masterworks will run Sep. 30-Oct. 3. This program will be offered in rotation with the first one Oct. 7-10. See our calendar for details.