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The Carolina Ballet began its four-day run of its new ballet, Carolina Jamboree, in Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium on February 24 to considerable applause before the opening steps were danced, for taking the stage first were Chapel Hill's well-loved Red Clay Ramblers. Even to listeners more used to classical forms, the Ramblers' musicianship and showmanship proves irresistible, and their old and new Americana sparked the ballet dancers into some swell moves in the new work by choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett.
The ballet comprises three tenuously connected sections – really, the connection is nothing more than the style of the music. "Part 1: Appalachia Stories" is the most complete and successful of the three, as its series of vignettes culminate in a dramatic finish. Opening with a pair of lovers dancing to "Sunrise," it closes with their wedding, with other activities in the community danced in between. The betrothed pair was danced by Lilyan Vigo and Alain Molina, and the pleasure of watching them together was increased by their evident pleasure in the dancing. Also outstanding in this section was Caitlin Mundth's amazing, frenzied solo to "Red Rocking Chair," in which she seems to have been driven around the bend by loss and betrayal. Also beautiful were Lara O'Brien and Timour Bourtasenkov in "Light Years Away." They were electric together, very sexy and in the moment, swinging and swooping, pulling apart and snapping back. In these pieces Taylor-Corbett combines ballet steps with the flailing rhythm of clogging and the swing of square dance, and the effect is fresh and uncontrived. As much as one loves traditional ballet, the energy and flexibility of this hybrid is a happy thing, and it is fun to see the dancers using their bodies in such joyous ways. The only weak section was a large group dance set to "Hard Times." Both the lyrics and the close harmonies of this song convey a range of delicately shaded emotion, and the dance did not have the same subtlety or complexity.
The ballet's second section is "The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey," a tale based on a true story that took place on the Pasquotank River. Bland Simpson wrote it up as a little book several years ago, and he and the band narrate over the dancing. The story is not particularly dramatic in book form, and it is less so in the dance, a very straightforward bit of storytelling that is even less exciting, spatially, than the other sections of Jamboree. The only really good part was seeing Melissa Podcasy dancing like she feels good again, and then to see her "floating" down the "river" after her mysterious death. Although we've seen her as a disembodied spirit in more than one dance, to see her as a corpse was strange and shocking.
"Part 3: Fiddlesticks" contains no narrative line but is instead a series of rafter-raising good-time songs to end the night on a high note. The frolicking silliness of the "Chicken Song" didn't do a thing for me, but "Snuffdipper" with the sassy Margot Martin, accompanied by Maximillien Baud and powerful newcomer Carlos Sierra-Lopez, was a lot of fun. Randi Osetek and Daemon Nagel performed a steamy "Can't Live Without 'Em Blues," and the whole company wrapped it up with the "Saratoga Hornpipe."
While I wouldn't say Carolina Jamboree is an unqualified success, the idea underlying it is a powerful one. Why should ballet not stretch itself to move to many different musics? Her passionate connection with wildly different musical forms is one of choreographer Taylor-Corbett's strengths, and it is clear that working with her benefits Carolina Ballet's dancers and its audience.
The Jamboree evening opened with a very different work by Taylor-Corbett, Lost and Found, a response to 9/11, which premiered in September, 2003. Danced to selections from the Symphonic Etudes and Posthumous Etudes by Robert Schumann (performed onstage by pianist Nancy Whelan), this work explores the separations and the comings-together during and after the disaster. I had remembered it as almost unbearably intense, but Thursday night's version was more pretty than painful. Part of this may have been because it was danced on a bigger stage this time, so the sense of compression, of pressure on the dancers, was much less. But perhaps it is because neither they nor we can sustain the level of feeling that we all experienced regarding 9/11. The event has begun to slip into history, and since the dance is a little more topical than archetypically tragic it cannot pull us to the high level of empathy that a greater work of art might do, no matter how beautifully Melissa Podcasy, as the Lost One, bourées just beyond the ken of the searching Bourtasenkov.