Charlotte Ballet presented its season debut on Thursday evening at the Knight Theater in a show entitled "Fall Works." Bringing together old and new works, the show was an eclectic mix of thought provoking, toe tapping, and awe inspiring. The Artistic Director and President, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and the Associate Artistic Director, Sasha Janes, choreographed works in the show, showcasing an amazing breadth of individuality and talent. An older, classic work by famed modern choreographer, Jirí Kylián, began the program, setting a thoughtful tone to the highly moving and entertaining evening.
Czech choreographer, Kilián's work "Forgotten Land" launched the evening's performances. Premiering in 1981, the work is set to Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, a lush, orchestral piece with a fascinating history. Inspired by a painting by Edvard Munch that reflect three women standing on a beach, Kilián's piece is a throbbing commentary on the subtleties and realities of innocence, passion, and death.
Six couples appeared on stage dressed in white, red, and black, and the shadows of those colors: beige, pink, and gray. The music, like the dance, began slowly, sparsely, and as new couples entered, grew more complex. The staidness of death was apparent, as was the wistful innocence of youth. Each couple and his and her shadow danced the esoteric characters with depth and fine attention to the careful choreography. Without knowing what the colors meant, the audience could sense passion and violence with the couples dressed in red and pink. The music was at times background and at others directly linked to the dancer's movements. "Forgotten Land" is a challenging work with unusual music, but the dancers commitment invited the audience to lean into and to connect in their own way to the art on stage.
From high art to folk-art, Bonnefoux's "Shindig" connected to North Carolina's Bluegrass tradition. Beginning with a short show by Bluegrass band The Greasy Beans, the company returned to the stage to a hoedown of live music. The Greasy Beans, a five-piece band with bass, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle play typical bluegrass fare with a rhythmic and more contemporary flair. Their playing was stellar and delightful. Bluegrass music is often repetitive to the point of torture, but The Greasy Beans held true to the amazing Bluegrass tradition while adding a unique twist that makes it utterly engaging to listen and to dance to. Particularly impressive was Cailen Campbell's fiddling. His technique, sound, and creativity stole the show. The dancers' personalities shined; they often winked and grinned at the audience. Dressed in country dresses and cowboy hats, the dancers danced with a mix of classical ballet technique and good old dosey doe (with point shoes, nonetheless!).
After intermission was the world premiere of Sasha Janes "The Four Seasons." Choreographed to Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, a virtuosic piece for violin and string orchestra, the dance is broken up into spring, summer, autumn, and winter. As the music started, I looked to the playbill to see who the violin soloist was, but to my dismay the name wasn't listed. Perhaps in the future, as the Ballet acknowledges both choreographer and dancer, so could they acknowledge both composer and musician in the playbill.
The dance began with a black curtain accompanied by the first movement of "Spring." Partly inspired by the music in his conception of the piece, Janes pays a wonderful tribute by allowing the audience to be carried away to Vivaldi's incredible musical world before introducing the dancers. The curtain opened to a verdant and peaceful scene. Dancers dressed in green and pink, with flowers on the women's skirts flitted and floated across the stage. The choreography fit the lightness of the music so perfectly. The moves were what you imagine when you hear the last movement of "Spring." They were exactly how your body would want to move to the music.
The colors of "Summer" changed to dark orange, red, and purple, taking over the background and the costumes. Janes understands the musical gesture of these pieces so well. In "Summer," the dancers not only portrayed the unpredictable mood of the season with its lazy, hot days interrupted by violent thunderstorms, but also the erratic emotional and technical components of the music. The dancers mimiced each other at times, but also had conversations through gesture and movement with each other. The violent summer storm of the last movement was particularly vivid. Projection Designer, Christopher Ash, added to the turbulence of the storm with his projection of roiling, threatening clouds, interspersed with lightening. His brilliant scenery was truly ominous.
"Fall" entered quickly with little transition. Oranges, yellows, and browns dominated the costumes. Once again Ash provided lovely detail on the trees projected onto the background screen; leaves gently and intermittently fell from them, creating a feeling of peace and calm in the audience. Janes paints this season in a particularly charming way. Autumn was mischievous, popping in and out, until culminating in a grand ball in the third movement. The amazing costume designer, Aimee J. Coleman, put the women in beautiful huge ball gown-like removable skirts. Vivaldi's music vacillates between an elegant, regal waltz and a more virtuosic violin solo. The women, matching the music, stepped out of the skirts during the solos, lightly dance around them, and stepped back into them during the waltz. The skirts, constructed of wire covered by luminous and textured cloth, stayed standing, looking like stacks of hay or piles of wonderfully glowing leaves. The men paraded around with the women, and at the end, took the skirts, opened them up, and threw them around their shoulders as capes with a bow to the women.
"Winter" entered from the audience, backlit, so she was a shadow, icily creeping onto the stage. Raven Barkley was fierce and angular like the music. When the men of the company took the stage to join her, she dominated and lead them. The choreography felt more visceral. Josh Hall had the only solo of the piece during the second movement. He shivered onto stage and painted a movingly lonely picture of winter's bleakness. The work ended with the largest ensemble piece. All of the men and women came to stage dressed in white costumes with high collars. They looked almost futuristic in their minimalist severity. However, the starkness of that image was immediately wiped away by the remaining moments of the piece. As the couples joined to dance together, and the audience realized that maybe winter wasn't so terrible after all, snow began to fall from the ceiling in one of the most amazing moments of any dance production I've ever seen. I could feel the audience breathe together as we all experienced this stunning moment of beauty together. I could feel our hearts expand.
I have played these pieces dozens of times, and I have heard them even more. Janes made me feel like I was hearing this music for the first time. Vivaldi's Four Seasons is one of the most played and most popular classical music pieces. Therefore, the musical tradition of these pieces is strong and universally known. Maybe less known to the public, but not so to any violinist or string player to have ever played, studied, or heard these pieces, are the sonnets that Vivaldi nearly obsessively adhered to while composing. Each musical gesture in the music reflects an incredibly specific image.
Whether or not Janes had any knowledge of this vivid poetry wasn't clear to me. Some of the more obvious images that are easily heard in the music, like the thunderstorm in "Summer" and the iciness of the opening of "Winter," I thought Janes represented beautifully. However, other stranger images, like the dog barking (represented by the poor viola) in the middle movement of "Spring" wasn't apparent on stage.
This lack of attention to the customary imagery in well-known works brings up an interesting discussion about art and about the responsibility to tradition versus the need for individual, unique expression. When choreographing a dance to a piece of music, is knowledge of the history of the music necessary? In this case, would having knowledge of the poetry stifle the creativity and put images into the mind, thereby preventing the imagination the chance to discover what it wants to out of the music?
I don't have an answer, nor do I have the space to offer my thoughts on both sides. What I can say is that Janes paid respect to Vivaldi's music, both by the intricate and brilliant music gestures in his choreography and by offering up new images and interpretations of the music delighting an enthusiastic and grateful audience.
The show runs through Saturday and tickets start at $25.00. See the side bar for more details.