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On April 21 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, the Carolina Ballet opened its new program, Backstage at the Ballet, a somewhat pedagogic project conceived by long-time dance writer Linda Belans and the Ballet's artistic director, Robert Weiss, who also choreographed the work. Its purpose is to educate its audience as to the work behind the art of ballet, and in that it is reasonably successful, though it is a less-than-perfect example of the art, in and of itself.
The concept is strong: show (a shortened version of ) the daily company class, during which dancers warm up and work through the drill of movements and postures that form the alphabet of ballet. See them at the barre, see them work on combinations at centre, following the lead of the teacher (Cyrille de la Barre), see them practice their motions forward, backward, around and up. Give a sense of the intensely kinetic and mimetic nature of the teaching and learning. Show how the alphabet of steps evolves into a vocabulary of sequences – the words, as it were, from which the powerful beauties of ballet can be crafted. See some of that vocabulary being polished by the choreographer, then show some finished dances, in which the audience can pick out all the components earlier demonstrated – but which now, through an alchemy which cannot be explained or demonstrated, have become art.
Unfortunately, from my point of view, the concept was degraded by intrusive and unnecessary narration by Weiss and Belans. I thought the narration was boring and more suitable for a school visit to the ballet or a self-promoting TV program than for an evening at the theatre. It was not clear why Weiss and Belans felt that talking about the work was better than showing it. Showing would have required a higher degree of dramatization – but that would only have assisted the artwork.
This (major) complaint aside, Backstage at the Ballet is in several respects quite wonderful. The Company Class section is cleverly designed. Since the stage could not be mirrored, as a dance studio is, a mirroring effect was created by placing dancers on both sides of the barres – and by Ross Kolman's bright overhead lighting, which made a mirror of the dark stage floor, in which one could see doubled the movements of dozens of arched feet. During this section, the barres were moved several times so the audience could view the lines of dancers in various ways. As the dancers warmed up to piano music written and played by Karl Moraski, the Teacher, de la Barre, circulated among the class, adjusting a leg here, an arm there.
Once the dancers moved away from the barres to centre, de la Barre demonstrated steps and sequences he wished them to copy. This is a good part for de la Barre, spotlighting his powerful technique. Here we see the "letters" of ballet becoming its "words" – and the enjoyment begins. You see clearly how personality, body type, and skill level affect every position or motion – how each dancer gives the "words" a slightly different shade of meaning, a different nuance of emotion. Everyone was moving well, but among the crowd of 26 dancers taking part in this section, at different moments, I particularly noticed corps de ballet member Samantha Boik. She was dancing very well indeed, spirited and snappy.
After a brief and lackluster segment where we see Timour Bourtasenkov rehearsing four dancers for his ballet (which was to follow later in the evening), and during which we are subjected to more palaver, the work moves into its much more satisfying second half, "Portraits."
For "Portraits," Weiss has made ten perfectly beautiful short dances in which to display the characters and talents of some of his fine dancers. Each dance was like a well-cut jewel, its facets flashing under Ross Kolman's sensitive lighting schemes. We saw Heather Eberhardt and Edgar Vardanian, both tall and impetuous, generating the fire they make together so well; we saw the delicate and nearly weightless Margaret Severin-Hansen floating in the arms of the equally buoyant Pablo Javier Perez; and in a delicious contrast, Margot Martin's bold mischievousness was matched with Wei Ni's more subtle wit. Lara O'Brien swept the stage in full romantic mode, and Hong Yang and Attila Bongar defined elegant lyricism. There were also three very pretty group dances, but the most affecting pieces were two by Christopher Rudd. Rudd is an audience favorite for his amazing abilities in the fast, flashy, feel-good mode, but recently Weiss has begun to tap a deep reservoir of emotion and understanding in this dancer. His first solo here was reminiscent of his powerful dance in Weiss' Symposium; both were very moving. Uninterrupted by chat, the "Portraits" portion was uniformly pleasing.
The program's second half comprised works by two dancer-choreographers from the company. Fallen Dreams is a deeply romantic new work by principal dancer Timour Bourtsenkov. Danced – by Margaret Severin-Hansen and Rudy Candia with Margot Martin, Wei Ni, Alessia Gelmetti, and Pablo Javier Perez – to Nancy Whelan's playing of Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Preludes, Fallen Dreams is perhaps a meditation on the seductive, narcotic nature of nostalgia. There is a great deal of full-body contact between the dancers in the pairs and lots of lifts, some of them very unusual. Yet the joy you might expect in these pairings is missing or distant. One feels instead a longing unfilled, an aura of loss, even desperation at times. It was very interesting to see Martin and Gelmetti together. They work well together, being similar in body type and strength of personality. The dance is full of striking images, some of them very beautiful, yet something was lacking. I tend to prefer my Rachmaninov a little more forceful than Whelan's delicate rendition; the slightly wan quality of the dance's affect may be attributable to that gentleness.
The evening closed with the choreographic debut of soloist and native Hungarian Attila Bongar. The Miraculous Mandarin is set to Bela Bartók's exciting music, and the story is based on the libretto by Menyhèrt Lengel. Ross Kolman's genius lighting tricks enliven an intriguing set. Bongar's choreography gives Lilyan Vigo a challenge, and she takes it up with gusto. As The Girl, seducing men to be rolled and robbed by her thuggish companions, she takes an undoubtedly welcome break from the beautiful and the good that she does so well and ventures into darker territory. Cyrille de la Barre, in a Yul Brynner head mask, makes a fine Mandarin, as powerful in his stillness as he is in motion.
The way the narrative will unfold is obvious from the first scene, but the extraordinary fit of the dance to the music is a continuing happy surprise throughout. Dancers and choreographers are necessarily musically sensitive if they are to be any good at all, and Bongar demonstrates that his sensitivity extends deep into the structure of the music. He has devised dancing that is keenly attuned to the angularity of the Bartók score yet the result is more than merely music made visible. The Mandarin is fine choreographic debut, and one hopes that more of Bongar's dances will enter Carolina Ballet's repertoire.
Note: This production continues through 4/24. For details, see our calendar.