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The Carolina Ballet opened the second program of its season on October 27 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium with a delightful and perfectly balanced evening of dances. The main attraction was a new production of Balanchine's 1957 Agon, with Robert Weiss' Petruschka to follow, but we were first treated to a new Weiss work, Petit Ballet Romantique.
Léo Delibes is one of the great 19th-century composers for ballet, and Petit Ballet Romantique is set to bits of his Sylvia combined with other bits from his La Source. However you may feel about such borrowings and recombinings from the music of an artist no longer around to defend his work, the result in this case is very pleasing, and it gave Weiss the basis for a lovely, graceful dance. Its scrumptious quality was enhanced by the pretty costumes designed by Anne Porterfield and Jeff A. R. Jones, while Ross Kolman's golden lighting and silky, glowing scrim took us into a happy dream world.
If you enjoy a stage full of beautiful women in pastel tulle moving lyrically together and accompanied by agile long-legged men in tights and poet-sleeved shirts, who twirl and lift them in a swirl of romantic images, then you will revel in Petit Ballet Romantique. Solidly in the tradition of ballet-for-beauty's sake, the piece is full of striking duets interspersed with larger group dances.
Lead dancers Lilyan Vigo and Alain Molina were beautiful together, as usual, but Molina was particularly striking. He was on, and I'd never seen him dance quite as well. He always has a warm presence and a strong, unaffected style that I enjoy, but on the 27th, his leaps were higher, his landings, softer, and his turns, crisper. His lifts of Vigo seem completely effortless, and his barrel chest and large head make her look even more delicate and refined than usual. Another good combination of partners was Margot Martin and Wei Ni. Both have a mischievous streak, and it was particularly fun to see them together, though all the pairs had their strong moments, and the corps supported them wonderfully. I hope that Weiss will keep this confection in the company's active repertoire. It may not be the most serious example of this high art form, but it is an undiluted pleasure.
Agon, the meat of the program, seemed especially robust following that amuse-bouche. Agon is the first of George Balanchine's "black and white" ballets (danced in simple practice clothes, without sets), and this is the first time it was presented by the Carolina Ballet, for whom it was staged by Victoria Simon of The George Balanchine Trust.
In 1957 Balanchine commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write a ballet score for him, and the result was Agon, in which every moment is replete with the difficult pleasures of the best Stravinsky music — it shimmers with an angular intelligence poised on an asymmetrical rhythmic balance, with colorful sounds like splintered geodes shattering and sparkling along a dark vein of forward impetus. Balanchine's choreography is equal to his friend's music. The work begins with a deceptive simplicity, using ordinary movements, lulling one into receptivity to the unusual postures that follow.
Ostensibly based on dances from a 17th-century French manual, Agon is the balletic essence of post-World War II modernism, and it might be reasonably compared with the paintings of Jackson Pollock or Wilhelm de Kooning, in the sense of the "all-overness" of the design. This "all-overness" is particularly noticeable in the triple pas de quatre that ends part one, where all twelve dancers take the stage at once, and in the four duos and four trios of part three, but it can be seen throughout in the relative equality of all the dancers — the lack of a single star. From the principals to the members of the corps de ballet, all twelve were stars in this dance.
Although it is also danced to music by Stravinsky, Petruschka was nearly as great a contrast to Agon as Agon had been to the Petit Ballet. This story of the sad clown is not the one Stravinsky co-wrote along with his music and that was choreographed by Fokine for the Ballet Russes in 1913 but an altered version written by Robert Weiss and Linda Belans and choreographed by Weiss. Their version is set in a circus replete with lions and tigers, horses and ponies, a snake and snake charmer, acrobats, and so forth. A Ringmaster dominates the clowns, where in the earlier version a magician controlled the clown-puppets. The Weiss version is a little Fellini-esque, a quality augmented by David Heuvel's inventive, colorful costumes and Ross Kolman's strong lighting. After the austere black and white Agon, the colors and crowds of Petruschka are intoxicating.
Cyrille de la Barre dances Petruschka, and Timour Bourtasenkov the Moor — and Margaret Severin-Hansen plays Columbine, torn between the two. This is a wonderful role for her and she exploits it fully. Both de la Barre and Bourtasenkov are very fine in the roles as well, and the whole thing moves along briskly, without a lot of unnecessary pantomime or silly stage business, so that one really feels for their characters, even while being diverted by the considerable antics of the acrobats and animals. However, it is Marin Boieru who dominates the piece, just as he dominates the three clowns. Boieru is one of the company's ballet masters, and occasionally appears in character roles with little dancing to them. Here he actually dances, and the excellence of that dancing was the crowning pleasure in an evening of delights.
Note: This program continues through 10/30; see our calendar for details.