I don't know what the dancers of the Carolina Ballet were doing all summer while I was missing their forceful grace, but they certainly were not slacking off. In the two programs of the Ballet Festival, presented in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, they showed themselves, individually and as a company, to be stronger, more flexible, and even more fearless than ever before.
The September 11 program, with music performed by the Ciompi Quartet, opened with the premiere of Robert Weiss' "Movement Study," danced to the first movement (Allegro molto) of Samuel Zyman's String Quartet (2002). It really is a study, for three male dancers, of possibilities, and it has the same intriguing quality as an artist's drawings for a complex painting not yet made. Pablo Javier Perez was the central figure; Gabor Kapin and Rudy Candida Rivera were his companions. All have their merits: Kapin is powerful in the spins, while Rivera is stronger in the moving leaps, but Perez has the brightest stage presence. He moves so lightly he seems almost to float, and his line is lovely.
Next came "Grosse Fuge," again by Weiss, danced to Beethoven's music. The company performed this beautiful work of light and dark patterning last season, and it had remained vivid in memory. Lilyan Vigo had been slated to perform the central female role, as she had in February, but had injured herself in rehearsal the day before, so there had been a last-minute shuffling of dancers, and Margaret Severin-Hansen took Vigo's place. She was accompanied in the principal roles by Gabor Kapin (replacing Timour Bourtasenkov) and Christopher Rudd in the part performed before by Mikail Nikitine. Unfortunately, everybody seemed just a little off in this performance. The music dragged just a hair, and Severin-Hansen was tense, stiff-necked and stiff-wristed. Kapin is a good dancer, but he is no Bourtasenkov, and Rudd didn't inhabit his role with ease. To be fair, I must say that had I not seen such a ravishing performance of this piece before, I would probably not be complaining. This is the problem with having such a fine ballet company - you expect them to perform always to their own highest standards and an off-night feels like more of a let-down to the viewer than maybe it should, as the performance was still way better than average.
The "Intrigue" which followed was completely charming. Choreographed by Bourtasenkov to Haydn's String Quartet in G, Op. 33/5, the piece is at once sprightly and formal, with a "story line" involving amorous games among four 18th century court couples. Severin-Hansen had gotten over her nerves. She's not as big as a minute, but she has always had a lot of presence. Now she has a new power and was delightful to watch, especially with Pablo Javier Perez, as they are well-matched in scale. Perez also had a sizzling flirtatious dance with Margot Martin, who is coming more and more into her own with every program.
The revelations in "Intrigue," however came from the work of Heather Eberhardt, Edgar Vardanian, Wei Ni and Hong Yang. Eberhardt is tall and has not had a good partner until now, but with Ni and the even taller Vardanian, she gets to shine. The chemistry between her and Vardanian is especially good, and there is a moment when - standing on pointe - she raises her other long, long leg nearly straight up and then wraps it over Vardanian's shoulder. It was one of the sexier things I've seen on the Carolina Ballet stage, if considerably more playful than Melissa Podcasy's smoldering sexuality in many of her roles. Hong Yang and Wei Ni also have an erotic dance, their delicacy contrasting beautifully with the earthiness of the other couple.
The final dance on the program was another new work by Robert Weiss, "Des Images" ("The Choreographer"), danced to Ravel's String Quartet in F from 1903. Resident lighting genius Ross Kolman was essential in making the images in this piece, which are based on Degas paintings of dancers in the studio - and in which there is often the figure of the ballet master or choreographer. That role is played here by Carolina Ballet's own ballet master, Marin Boieru, who first imagines the dance as the dancers in his mind move around him (notable is Lara O'Brien); then rehearses a sequence with Severin-Hansen, Margot Martin and Lindsay Purrington; and finally makes a pas de deux with Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov. We've waited all night to see them, and we don't get quite enough. "Des Images" delighted me partly because I love the Degas paintings so much, but its importance lies in the way it extends Weiss' intelligent exploration of the metamorphoses of art.
The Ballet Festival's second program, with solo piano music, (viewed September 20) was both more and less satisfying. We were warmed up with a smart ensemble piece by Tyler Walters, "Five Geometric Dances," set to music by Domenico Scarlatti. Nancy Whelan was the pianist; I wished for a crisper interpretation on her part. The dances themselves - Circular, Parallel, Triangular, Parabolic and Hyerbolic - were pleasing at all levels. They are not just dashing exercises in pattern-making but wise and witty meditations on human relationships.
The dancers, bare-legged and costumed in red and white, get to show off their particular strengths, and they are manifold. I love watching Heather Eberhardt having fun now that she's got tall partners. She couldn't keep the joy hidden, and neither could Margot Martin and Christopher Rudd, whose similar energy became apparent in their partnering. The wow factor there was very high. In delicious contrast to them is Hong Yang, an extraordinarily graceful dancer with flawless technique and great emotive power.
Following was the centerpiece of the program - indeed, of the two programs comprising the Ballet Festival. As Weiss had explained at the September 11 performance, the company had been unable to schedule "Lost and Found," which commemorates the events of and following September 11, 2001, for that anniversary date because that was when he could get the Ciompi, and not when he could get the piano. It is just as well. The piece ripped my heart out as it was.
"Lost and Found" was choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, whose work I often find too glitzy for my taste, and I had been very anxious as to whether this piece could possibly have enough feeling to warrant its presentation. I needn't have worried (although now I am forced to wonder why she doesn't put more passion in other dances). Danced to music by Robert Schumann (selections from the Symphonic Etudes and Posthumous Etudes) played very beautifully by Karl Moraski, "Lost and Found" was a deeply emotional ballet, powerfully danced.
The entire ensemble was very good. Lindsay Purrington, partnered by Christopher Rudd, was the best I've yet seen her. Hong Yang and Wei Ni are both extremely pliant and subtle dancers, and together they are very fine. Heather Eberhardt and Edgar Vardanian were ravishing. But the stage belonged to Timour Bourtasenkov and his lost one, Melissa Podcasy. Their feelings projected to the back of the balcony with a force that had the audience in tears. There was rage and confusion and kindness and connection and resignation and healing in this dance, but the dominant feeling was grief. "Lost and Found" is the first memorial to 9/11 I've seen that is worthy of the name.
I don't know what could have followed that piece that would have worked, but it wasn't the two pretty dances by Donald Mahler. Conventional wisdom has it that you want to leave the audience on a high note, but I actually think it would have been better to end the program with "Lost and Found." Certainly "Soaring" and "Les Esprits D'Eau," set to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and several Ravel piano works, respectively, would have fared better earlier in the program, before we'd exercised our emotions into exhaustion. Both dances were enjoyable, especially "Les Esprits D'Eau," which had been considerably pumped up from its languid version last season, but they seemed distant after the raw immediacy of "Lost and Found."
These are quibbles. The Carolina Ballet continues its great work of kinetic philosophy, bringing questions and wisdom to the stage, along with pleasure and passion. Go. They should be dancing every night to a full house.