The Carolina Ballet's dynamic program in Memorial Auditorium this weekend (Oct. 16-19) may be its best-yet combination of dances. The evening opens with Robert Weiss's Firebird , followed by a pas de deux as clean and sweet as lemon sorbet, and finishes with Lynne Taylor-Corbet's brilliant Carmina Burana . Although I have some problems with The Firebird ,as a whole this program offers an extremely satisfying evening of dance and glorious music. It also demonstrates just how important the arrangement of the whole program is for the appreciation of the individual dances.
The Firebird , danced to Stravinky's music, while not a powerful enough piece to crown the program, makes a rich, luxurious opener. Jeff A.R. Jones' scenic design, based on Russian folk-styles and full of gold and high-toned color, immediately plunges you into the story's world, and David Heuvel's beautiful costuming completes your immersion. As usual, Ross Kolman makes the magic live with his lighting effects. On October 16, the North Carolina Symphony, under the direction of the impeccable Alfred E. Sturgis, was in unusually fine fettle, and they rendered all the different moods of the music with equal sympathy and verve.
Lead dancers were Lilyan Vigo (apparently fully recovered from her injury) as the Firebird, Mikhail Nikitine as Prince Ivan, Christopher Rudd as the Sorcerer, and Heather Eberhardt as the captive Princess Katarina. These are all dancers with strong personal styles and stage presence, and all were up to their usual standard of excellence. They were accompanied by bevies of princes and princesses, forest animals, dragons and monsters.
While there are any number of very fine dances in the piece - when the prince captures the Firebird, when the prince first encounters the captive princesses, the Firebird's solo - it is also true that Weiss throws away some key dramatic moments. The important scene at the beginning, when the Sorcerer hides the magic egg containing his immortal soul, is almost negated by its focus on the charming forest animals who witness his act. More disturbing is the scene when the Firebird returns to save the prince. There is so much going on that the first time I saw this work, I missed her entrance. Even watching for her this time, I felt there was too much clutter around her and not enough sense of her power. This is the key moment of the ballet: your eye should be nowhere but on the Firebird. But it doesn't work that way here. And sadly, at the very end, when she should have another riveting dance, she simply steps into a rope sling and is borne aloft. As grand and glorious as this work is in places, it leaves one without the deep dramatic satisfactions that are the birthright of both the story and the music.
Not thinking there would be a second piece before the intermission, I was completely surprised by "Awakening," set to music by Craig Steven Schuler. What delicious music! The three spirited movements might be called robustly romantic. Weiss had choreographed this pas de deux - his first major work, the music commissioned from Schuler - for Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1975. Margaret Severin-Hansen and Gabor Kapin's pert, brisk performance demonstrated, along with their captivating abilities, that Weiss's choreography remains fresh and delightful, undated nearly three decades later. It was a perfect intermezzo between the rich appetizer and the spicy meat course to come.
Some people say there are only a few plots in the human drama; some say there is only one: We spin on the great wheel of fate, coursing through giving and greed, passions good and bad, innocence and corruption. There is no progress on this circular path, only experience and death and repetition. This is the theme of Carl Orff's well-known Carmina Burana , for which he set medieval South German poems and songs to a stupendous score combining medieval elements with those from the extreme edge of 1937 modernity. It is also the theme of Lynne Taylor-Corbett's ballet Carmina Burana , set to Orff's nearly overwhelming music.
The North Carolina Symphony and the North Carolina Master Chorale lit into the music like they'd been waiting their whole lives for the moment. It must be fantastically satisfying music to make, with those torrents and volcanoes of clamorous sound pouring around the solos in their midst. Baritone David Mellnick, who stepped in at the last minute and who sometimes sang onstage among the dancers, was particularly thrilling. My only quibble with the music is that, by physical necessity, the singers faced the stage rather than the audience, so we did not get the full sensation of the hurricane of sound. Still, they made a righteous plenty of noise.
This ballet is a work of art brilliant in its conception, ferocious in its execution. No fairy tale, it turns a pitiless eye on human transgression and weakness. And it does this with industrial-strength dancing in a modern-day setting, replete with lottery tickets and stock tickers. "O! Fortuna," indeed!
I won't go into the storyline, but it is a remarkably subtle exploration of different aspects of Fortuna: luck, fate, fortune. Some luck chooses us; we sometimes choose our fates. But, the ballet asserts, our larger fate is pre-determined. We turn on the wheel.
Mikhail Nikitine was exciting and effective as the Man Who Wins, transforming himself again and again as the wheel spins him round. Melissa Podcasy, as his wife, the Woman Who Yearns, still puts everyone else on the stage in the shadow with her intensity and precision, especially when dancing with Timour Bourtasenkov, the Man Who Waits.
But there were some surprises in the cast. Edgar Vardanian was hypnotic as the Man of Darkness. Vardanian is tall and dramatically long-limbed, with a bold prow of a nose. We had seen him in the last program as a flirtatious courtier. Here he has transformed himself completely into the dark seducer, the amoral force of ruination. And he does things with his body that seem impossible - reptilian, snake-like things that make the hair stand up on your neck. His partner in evil is the stunning Myrna Kamara, the Siren of Temptation, who brings a powerful range of expression to the stage. She is an experienced dancer, easily equal to Vardanian's power. A greater surprise was Miriam Rowan, the young apprentice who dances the Daughter Who Dreams. She was very impressive, especially in the dance where she is seduced by the Man of Darkness.
It is no surprise, however, that the Carolina Ballet takes on three such demanding and different works in one night. In their sixth year among us they have more than proved their daring. It is not just the aerial tricks, like the one near the end of Carmina Burana , that liken them to high-wire workers. It is the way they risk everything - not recklessly but deliberately, purposefully - to show us passion, truth, beauty, art. There is no net for that act. And there is no way we can repay them but by watching them, again and again.