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Sitting next to an audience member I'd never met before and conversing with her, thanks to the COVID-19 vaccines and to our vaccination cards that had been scrupulously checked in the Belk Theater lobby, I could share her excitement in being back to see the Charlotte Ballet, out in public without pods or social distancing, and enjoying live performance in a real audience for the first time in nearly 19 months. Even though we were all masked – discarding social distancing seems to increase our tendency to take this precaution seriously – my wife and I felt a distinct residue of wariness. Trusting that the people sitting next to you and the people checking them are trustworthy was a calculated leap of faith, and it was my first occasion of sitting next to a stranger since March 2020, so I could understand why the upper tiers at Belk Theater were empty for Charlotte Ballet's 50th Anniversary Celebration, and why the orchestra and Grand Tiers weren't teeming to capacity.
Gathering us together for their big celebration after two postponements, the Charlotte Ballet didn't shrink from keeping us together, offering us a longer and more varied program than we've seen in many a season. More than that, they welcomed Christopher Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony to the pit (have we ever seen him down there before?) to perform a Philip Glass piece, and brought four masked CSO principals onstage to fuel a performance of Antonin Dvořák's Piano Quintet. With the exception of Salvatore Aiello's electrifying setting for Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, the program didn't find Charlotte Ballet in a retrospective mood. Christopher Stuart, the new interim artistic director, jumped into the fray first with a new piece, "Then, Now, Forever," set to the live Glass. Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, whose work has been featured at Spoleto Festival USA on a couple of occasions dating back to 2009, made an edgier Charlotte debut with "A Picture of You Falling," paired with the Stuart piece before the first of two intermissions. Framed by the two intervals, Val Caniparoli appeared in Charlotte for the first time with Ibsen's House, interestingly set to the Dvořák. All of these choreographers were present for the celebration – except for Aiello, the former North Carolina Dance Theatre artistic director who died in 1995 at the age of 51.
The company itself, launching season 51, looked no less fresh and new, especially with etoile Sarah Hayes Harkins happily sidelined on maternity leave. No less than five dancers were taking their first steps as new members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II, including two Isabellas, Franco and Bertellotti, who are time-sharing a role in the three performances of Ibsen's House through Saturday. Meanwhile, a trio of seven-year veterans of the troupe – Sarah Lapointe, Raven Barkley, and Amelia Sturt-Dilley – are striding more to the forefront. Lapointe and Barkley struck me as the most arresting presences in Section 1 of the "Then, Now, Forever" suite. Tempo quickened noticeably for Section 2, with newcomers Franco and Emerson Dayton paired with Ben Ingel and Davis Preciado. Easing back to a languid midtempo for Section 3, Lapointe poured out her newfound imperious confidence opposite Rees Launer, which made the fast pace of Section 4 that much more celebratory, teeming with ten dancers. Stuart's choreographic style didn't startlingly depart from classical models, so his costume design collaboration with Katherine Zywczyk, as well as the dancers, somewhat upstaged him. Backlighting and dramatically silhouetting the famously inert Belk Theater organ pipes, lighting designer Jeff Emory made them useful for the first time in their ignominious history.
Standing spotlights were the scenery for Pite's "A Picture of You Falling," surrounding Sturt-Dilley and Andrés Trezevant in a semi-circular formation as the tenuously connected couple performed to Owen Belton's original 2008 music and Pite's cold, emotion-free text. We are perhaps invited, without any cordiality, to identify with this brief deconstructed romance, first from Trezevant's point of view as he faced himself and the repetitive emptiness of his life. Eventually, we escape from this spiral as Pite takes us to the moment where he literally bumps into Sturt-Dilley. Flirtation and courtship do not figure on this island of light in Pite's pitch-black universe, so when Trezevant is shown falling, the effect is from gravity rather than love – "This is you falling," "This is you collapsing" – and his heart literally hits the floor rather than filling with passion. Sturt-Dilley seemed to take over the lead, drawing our empathy for a while, as the little chronicle climaxed at "The Place," with a light hint that what's happening, as the two are engaged in their pas de deux, isn't happening to him. "This is how it happens" transitioned swiftly, without the luxury of regret, "to this is how it ends" after repeated, obsessive descriptions of the room, something like a Last Year in Marienbad video loop or some classically gloomy Ingmar Bergman. Repeated collapses followed, and the falling featured some slo-mo and freeze-frame touches reminiscent of The Matrix.
We haven't seen any Ibsen from our local theatre companies in Charlotte since a lackluster production of A Doll's House in 1999, so Caniparoli's Ibsen's House figured to be a bad mismatch with the Queen City's theatre tastes, theatre history, and local theatre professionals outside UNC Charlotte, where they presumably remember that the Norwegian is revered as the father of modern drama. Caniparoli showcased five oppressed Victorian women, including the heroines from Ghosts, Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, and the title character of Hedda Gabler. Yet it would be irresponsible for me to recommend catching up with these scripts, for there was little from Dayton and Ingel that reminded me of feminist icon Nora Helmer, insensitive ingrate husband Torvald, and A Doll's House – or anything at all from Lapointe as Hedda, Josh Hall as George Tesman, Sturt-Dilley as Mrs Alving, and Peter Mazuroski as her son Oswald that awakened memories of Gabler or Ghosts, the other Ibsen staples in Caniparoli's gallery that I've seen. Dayton captured Nora's early timidity beautifully and Lapointe had a steely resoluteness that was almost intimidating, yet we never found ourselves in the vicinity of the notorious endings of their dramas. Scenic and costume designer Sandra Woodall is best in evoking this strait-laced and corseted era, and Caniparoli excels brilliantly in choreographing the Dvořák, whose 1887 quintet was completed between the times that Ghosts and Hedda Gabler premiered.
Having already previewed The Rite of Spring, we need not dwell on the fire and fury of Lapointe as The Chosen One – other than to say that Lapointe didn't disappoint and completely owned the sacrificial maiden's every move (Sturt-Dilley dances the role on Friday and Lapointe returns Saturday). Lapointe upstaged and literally towered over everyone else in sight, but the clash between Ingel as the Old Chieftain and James Kopecky as the Young Warrior was primal, intensely physical, and thrilling. Presiding over everything with a shamanistic presence as the curtain went up was Nadine Barton as the Earth Figure, a grand coming out for her in her third year. About the only clear reminder we had all evening of concessions we're still making to COVID was the absence of live winds, brass, and percussion blaring forth and flailing away at Stravinsky's score in the orchestra pit. Representing the Salvatore Aiello Trust, curator Jerri Kumery brought the spirit of the choreographer into the hall, and the 17 dancers onstage kept the temperature of his work white-hot.
This performance repeats through October 9. See our sidebar for details.