The North Carolina Dance Theatre could hardly have done more to exhibit its range than it did on February 25 in the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte Uptown. From the afternoon performance of Snow White, choreographed for the pleasure of children (but also pleasing to their grown-ups) to the two demanding works on the evening program, the NCDT demonstrated its mastery of multiple modes of movement.
Happy as the bluebird
Whether you acquired your ideas about Snow White from the Brothers Grimm or from Disney, there was something for you in this NCDT production. The choreography, costumes, and sets were by Mark Diamond, who has made many ballets for the company, and who also runs the NCDT2 company of emerging professional dancers, many of whom appeared in this production. His Snow White is set to a fairly successful patchwork of music by Delibes, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rossini — although the Rossini was a little surprising. Diamond made the interesting choice of casting Adam Stein, in drag, as the evil stepmother, and his/her swishing about made the character much less frightening than it might otherwise have been. Traci Gilchrest danced prettily as Snow White, but the magnificent Jhe Russell was not up to standard as the Prince — he appeared a little bored, and in the penultimate duet with Gilchrest, his final lift and inversion of her was so clumsy I thought he was going to drop her on her head.
The dwarves had the best dances and did some of the best dancing. Especially notable was Bryan Arias, from NCDT2, as Scratchy. He was very funny, and his nimble turns and flashing legwork were much appreciated. If the dwarves stole the show, it was the children from the NCDT school who made it special. They were amazingly skilled and controlled — even the youngest, who had some long poses with arms held gracefully overhead. The pageboys were quite dashing, and the Forest Animals were all wonderful — especially Liza Jane Branch as the Squirrel and Ellie Frith, who moved beautifully as the Bluebird. Altogether Snow White is a solid work, though geared for a young audience. It will certainly have created dozens of new ballet fans who will grow up taking excellent performance as their natural right.
Not your father's Balanchine
The evening program, also in the Belk Theater, was designed to honor the 10th anniversary of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride's leadership of the NCDT. The first of its two pieces, "Alleged Dances," was commissioned for NCDT from choreographer Dwight Rhoden by patrons Susan and Loy McKeithen and had premiered on the 23rd. Two nights later, any glitches there may have been had been worked out and all the kinks in the dancing were purely purposeful.
Both the music — by John Adams and Michael Hersch — and the dancing were kinky, angular, and abrupt, full of unusual and surprising bursts and turns and full stops. When the dancers appeared on stage in black and white costumes — a glossy take on Balanchine's black and white practice clothes — making angular moves to the dissonant sounds of new music, one could not help but think of the great Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations. But this is not your father's Balanchine — or Stravinsky, or even your own David Parsons, to whose work there were some resemblances. It was more like some of the new industrial-strength European ballet. Section titles like "Alligator Escalator," "Toot Nipple," and "Stubble Crotchet" emphasized a philosophical bent toward anti-beauty. It was exhilarating stuff, a showcase for the strength, power, and stamina of the dancers, and only occasionally did it go over the line from anti-beauty (which has its own grace) to actual ugliness. Other than the fact that the women were dancing on pointe, this was a piece one might have expected to see at the American Dance Festival, and it says a good deal about the liveliness of Charlotte's ballet audience that they gave "Alleged Dances" a huge ovation.
On the throne of luck
Luck may be the empress of the world, but Fortuna alone did not bring about the glorious production of Carmina Burana that closed NCDT's tribute program. It took the combined talents of the full NCDT company and NCDT2, and all the company apprentices, trainees, and high-level students from the school, and the Appalachian State University Symphony Orchestra, plus three ASU choirs and three soloists to create this amazing performance of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's choreography to Carl Orff's powerful music. It was an outstanding collaboration.
The tremendous grand noise of Carmina Burana can easily make you feel as if you'd been passed over by a steamroller by the end of the piece, but ASU conductor James Allen Anderson, along with choral directors Roosevelt Escalante, Jr., Stephen M. Hopkins, and Priscilla Porterfield, achieved an exalted sound that did not overwhelm. Anderson gave a little more emphasis to the strings, especially the large cello and bass sections, and a little less to the hot brass than you sometimes hear, so you were not absolutely flattened by it, and when the single tuba sang out, your heart sprang up in joy. The percussive elements were clear and powerful, and the timpanist was outstanding. The choirs sang from the boxes on the grand tier and the two upper balconies, so the sounds came at the audience from three directions. With the men on one side and the women on the other, you could hear both very well. The voices were pure, but young, and conductor Anderson was careful never to drown them with the orchestra, while soloists Julia A. Pedigo, Craig Estep, and Joseph Amaya soared easily above it.
Carmina is a most amazing blend of secular and sacred, and Bonnefoux's dances maintain that balance, aided by some rather imposing sets and projected images by Howard Jones and atmospheric lighting by Nate McGaha. And the dancing! Having just watched much of the company (some of whom had also danced in the afternoon) triumph over the innate difficulties of Rhoden's work, it was hard to believe they'd have enough left to do justice to Carmina Burana. But rarely have I seen ballet dancers work with such gorgeous abandon — and they sustained it for more than an hour.
From the ecstatic dance for nine men to "O, Fortuna"' which opens the ballet to its reprise, with full ensemble, at the close, the dancing was sublime. It is very difficult to pick out the best bits — the list grows to include the entire troupe. But I must note Traci Gilchrest, Kati Hanlon Mayo, and Nicholle Rochelle's loveliness in the first dance of the "Primo Vere" section: "the sharpness of winter/now flees defeated;/in various apparel/Flora reigns."* Bryan Arias of NCDT2 was again notable whenever he appeared, and the "In Taberna" section included two very fine male solos, danced by Daniel Wiley and Jhe W. Russell. And in the "Cour d'amour" part there were several wonderful duets, danced by Kati Hanlon Mayo and Adam Stein; Andre Teixeira, first with Heather Ferranti Ferguson, and later with Alessandra Ball; and Traci Gilchrest with Daniel Wiley. Gilchrest was ravishing in this last, set to '"In trutina" with the soprano singing "In the uncertain balance of my mind/the opposites waver,/desirous love and modesty./But I choose what I see/I offer my neck for the yoke;/to so sweet a yoke I submit."
Sweet, surely, was the yoke of applause that followed the huge, culminating dance and the final burst of sound. Ovation after ovation rang from the standing audience, growing louder and louder as the leading ballerinas came forward. But when the conductor was led onto the stage, the roar rivaled that of the music he had led: "Phoebus anew/laughs; with many a/flower he is now wreathed." The wheel of fortune exalted all this night!
*Translations are from the booklet that accompanies EMI's classic recording with the LSO, led by André Previn.