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Can there be any classical music listener unfamiliar with Handel's Messiah ? I think not. But hearing this familiar music becomes a new experience when one is also watching its stories danced in the remarkable, brave production by the Carolina Ballet.
It is not, let me say at the outset, an experience which gives primacy to the music: the physical, the dramatic, the kinetic all take precedence over the glories of the music, directed here by Alfred E. Sturgis, played for the dancers by a string quartet and organist Nancy Whelan, and sung by members of the North Carolina Master Chorale, with soloists varying from performance to performance. To a greater or lesser degree, this imbalance often occurs when dance and music are paired - although ideally they are equal partners, as in the lovely Weiss-choreographed work to Beethoven's Große Fuge, in Carolina Ballet's last program. On April 3, opening night of this run of Messiah, the dominance of the dance over the music was very noticeable.
In part this was the result of the audience straining to understand each word of the texts, so as better to interpret the action on stage, rather than simply letting the meaning of the sounds wash through its collective consciousness. But at times the volume and force of the singers and musicians were simply not adequate to soar over the dancers' thunderous, unscored percussion. When the entire company was onstage, more than two dozen pairs of feet were hitting the floor, and that makes a lot of noise.
Only the most die-hard music purist would quibble over this, though, when the ballet gives us so much embodied passion. No matter what your religion or spiritual practice, the great story is much the same. Birth - joy - suffering - death - and the great mystical mystery of the eternal return. Divided into three parts to correspond with the life, death and resurrection of Christ and to echo the idea of the Holy Trinity, Messiah tells the Christian version of the great story, but you don't have to be a Christian to feel its spiritual force. You just have to be human.
Robert Weiss and Will Graham have created a scenario on which to hang the dances (choreographed principally by Weiss, with additional choreography by Timour Bourtasenkov, Amy Seiwert, and Tyler Walters). As the overture is played, a congregation gathers in a vast church (once again, Jeff A.R. Jones and Ross Kolman create satisfying places with minimal scenery and excellent lighting) to hear the first recitative: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people... make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
As hope and faith grow within the people, the dancing begins as the expression of their feelings. The struggles and spiritual growth of the people fill the next several sections, then their responses begin alternating with the imaging of prophesies and with tableaux from the life of Christ. These tableaux are based on paintings and sculptures, many of which may be seen at the North Carolina Museum of Art. (Interestingly, Handel loved paintings - at his death he owned more than 90 very fine works.) The strength of this scenario lies in its returning us again and again to the congregants, and in the meaning of the great story to them. This spiritual story does not languish in the dry philosophical or the ranting theological distance; its context is at the center of human life, individual and communal.
The scope and flow of the ballet are just as overwhelming and uplifting as those of the oratorio itself, and there are too many fine dances to be able to mention them all. Several pieces, though, do stand out. In a superb example of doing the most with the least, the transformation of the girl Mary into the Holy Virgin is accomplished by a single female in dark red crossing the stage diagonally, dancing through a swath of dramatic chiaroscuro lighting. She is pursued by another figure (the angel Gabriel, one presumes) who wraps her in a long cloth of Marian blue as she moves. Once she is fully cloaked in the Virgin's colors, some subtle motion or perhaps a tiny pause indicates her submission to the mystery thrust upon her - then she whirls offstage. The whole thing can't have taken a minute, yet it was one of the most vivid images of the performance.
A dozen dancers created another wonderful image with a billowing thundercloud-dark cloth, dancing with the text "For behold, Darkness shall cover the earth," but another piece with lengths of white cloth did not work well. These were laid on the stage to represent water, apparently, and the dancers represented Christ walking on the water and the disciples falling into the waters. It was danced to the chorus singing "And with his stripes we are healed" and was altogether very confusing.
All I'll say about the dance to "We like sheep" is that it went seriously astray, but another bit that didn't work very well was quite a surprise. Melissa Podcasy appears as an angel, replete with huge golden wings. But the wings come with a cadre of lesser beings to hold them up, and they clutter the image and appear to constrain Podcasy's movements, which is a terrible thing for a dancer of her caliber. She has the power to become the angel with movement alone - she doesn't need the props.
Another pair of wings worked much better. Lillian Vigo and Alain Molina appear as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove - all in white, each with one gossamer wing - dancing with redemptive beauty and simplicity to "Oh death, where is thy sting?" They were also lovely as the happy young couple with a newborn baby in the dance to "For unto us a child is born" and the Pastoral Symphony. And Vigo and Podcasy have a couple of beautiful duets where each benefits from the strengths of the other.
But the real power of this ballet is in the work of Timour Bourtasenkov. From the moment he appears as the spirit of the Truth to the moment he disappears as the ascending Christ, he is superb. His portrayal of the man Jesus betrayed and derided, suffering and crucified, is matched only by the resplendent beauty of his dancing as Christ resurrected. Lift up your heads, oh ye gates! Handel's great art is gloriously served by the art of Bourtasenkov, Robert Weiss, and all the dancers of the Carolina Ballet.
Carolina Ballet's performances of Messiah continue through April 20. See our calendar or visit http://www.carolinaballet.com/ for details.