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The Carolina Ballet opened its new program, Spiritual Journey, on April 6 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, and it is a journey any dance lover would be happy to take. I had heard many expressions of disappointment that the company would not presenting its Messiah this season, but the satisfactions of this program are at least as great as those of Weiss' earlier exploration of the great religious themes of the spring. But don't wait, thinking you'll catch this on the second weekend: the run ends Sunday, April 9.
The evening opened with a splendid new work by the company's lead male dancer, Timour Bourtasenkov. Set to Vivaldi's Gloria, this dance includes images that will burn in the mind forever. Based on the Christian iconography of Eastertide yet unfettered by requirements of narrative chronology or particular embodiments of specific characters, Bourtasenkov's Gloria pulses with a spirituality that is freed from the tyranny of time's arrow and suffers and rejoices instead in time's circle.
It is also a remarkable piece of choreography, combining classical ballet with Pilobolus-style shape-making and feats of balance and motion that require the dancers to act as one articulated body. It includes an extraordinary number of jumps and lifts as well. Fortunately, the Archangels on stage were powerful enough for the job — Edgar Vardanian and Wei Ni were magnificent in their demanding roles. Particularly notable was their extended sequence with Falling Angel Margaret Severin-Hansen, in which her feet did not touch the floor for several minutes. Pablo Javier Perez, who danced The Son, doesn't need any help moving through the air — he flies beautifully on his own — but even he must be hoisted aloft as the crucified man, and later, as the resurrected Christ.
Hong Yang was ethereal and powerful as the Guardian Angel. The delicate perfection of her technique showed especially well in this role. There is a lovely dance where she is carried by the two Archangels, but the most beautiful sequence of the entire piece is one in which Severin-Hansen is in front of her and Vardanian behind, and they make a mandorla shape, the almond shape associated with the Virgin. Maybe she's the Virgin, maybe she's the Holy Ghost. Maybe Severin-Hansen is the Holy Mother, or maybe she is the Son. Maybe each is all. What was unambiguous, however, was the completeness of the Holy Trinity, in which spirit bridges word and flesh. When Vardanian lifted both women at once, the image created embodied this concept with perfect clarity. I felt illuminated by joy.
There were many, many other beautiful images and amazing sequences in this Gloria, which was also deeply attentive to Vivaldi's soul-lifting music. All the dancers seemed to feel the music strongly, especially in the great outward-facing circle dance late in the piece. Again I experienced the aesthetic-spiritual ecstasy that one hopes for in any art work. The only flaw in Bourtasenkov's Gloria comes at the very end, when the dancers have formed a pyramid with the Son raised upstage, high above in glory, where at the beginning he had been downstage, suffering. Suddenly everyone on stage whipped out "candles" from who knows where and held them up like they were at a rock concert. This rather heavy-handed expression of "Jesus, light of the world," although it didn't spoil the work, was unnecessary and jarring after the subtle imaginings of the rest of the dance.
Next on the program was Ipse Dixit, a new work by Tyler Walters set to music by La Nef. Danced by Wei Ni (that he had the energy to pick up anything heavier than a toothpick after his previous exertions was amazing), Attila Bongar, Dameon Nagel, Margot Martin, Lara O'Brien, and Hong Yang, it was a nice follow-up to the first work in that it emphasized the great circularity of life. However, the whole work seemed arid in comparison to the flow of inventiveness in Vivaldi’s Gloria. At times it was a little pretentious and the transitions were clunky. The "Youth Feels Eternal" section, with the three couples dancing, was the cleanest and strongest. Margot Martin stood out here.
Another highlight followed. Company artistic director Robert Weiss had choreographed a fine new pas de deux for Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov, Endymion’s Sleep, set to J. Mark Scearce's beautiful music of that name. Weiss has given Podcasy all the things she does best in this dance, and although she had appeared several weeks ago in The Moor’s Pavanne, this performance marks her true return to dancing on stage with a confident spirit and a joyful heart. How exciting to see her fearless attack again! There were a few infinitesimal pauses where you could almost see her mind commanding her body to do it now, but they came in places where she was already in postures few people on earth could manage, such as a full hands-on-the-floor backbend while on pointe. I don't know if she is pain-free, but anyone can see that the stone of pain has been rolled away from her spirit and that feeling now flows again between her and the audience. She danced better and more movingly Thursday night than we have seen in years. Although this dance is based on the story of Selene and Endymion, it is impossible not to see, with this dancer, a story of death and resurrection in it, as well.
The program concluded with Poulenc’s Gloria, with new choreography by Robert Weiss. It is not Weiss' best work, being a little unclear and confusing in places, but it certainly has wonderful sections. The opening, danced by Alain Molina as the Spirit of Christ, was exhilarating. Molina moved with grace, force, and great buoyancy through his elegant and demanding solo. This section and some of the later ensemble pieces showed Weiss' skill in using the stage to maximum spatial effect. Lilyan Vigo as the Angel Presence was her always-lovely self, but there were a few moments when I thought we'd gotten off into Swan Lake. The most interesting parts involved Vigo dancing with Caitlin Mundth (the Prophetess). Mundth has developed a great deal this season, and the dynamic between her and Vigo is one that I hope Weiss will explore further. The ensemble had some of the beautiful dances that Weiss is so good at making, too, and while this Gloria was not sublime, its earthly pleasures were gracious and sufficient.
Spring and Easter, of course, comprise a season of miracles, of life returning and souls rising to converge with hope. Leaving the concert, I could not help but think that the Carolina Ballet is itself a miracle granted to us here by some kind Fate. It is hard to believe in miracles. They could be illusions. But I saw proof. On the rear bumper of the very real twin-cab, V-8, 4-WD pick-up truck in front of me a single bumper sticker proclaimed the good news: "Carolina Ballet — Come Soar with Us."