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In the dance world, companies like Miami City Ballet impress us with their precision and synchronicity, others like the Ailey Dance Theater wow us with the charismatic individualism of their principals, and still others – myriad companies large and small – astonish us with the daring of their choreography. With their first program of the 2014-15 season, Dangerous Liaisons, Charlotte Ballet has authoritatively stamped themselves as all of the above: precise, dynamic, and breathtakingly audacious. Their revival of Sasha Janes' Liaisons, cunningly adapted from the notorious epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was every bit as impactful as it was in its 2012 premiere. Preceding that sensual steam-bath was the return of George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, last done by Charlotte Ballet at Belk Theater in 2008, when the company was still known as North Carolina Dance Theatre.
Associate artistic director Patricia McBride, a dance immortal who performed The Four Temperaments with the New York City Ballet, used fewer dancers staging the piece on the smaller Knight Theater space than she had last time around. Dancers from the satellite Charlotte Ballet II company and students from the Charlotte Ballet Academy still figured prominently in the 20-member ensemble, and Balanchine's 1946 choreography looked as young as yesterday. With its cool modernistic flavoring, Paul Hindemith's austere score for piano and strings has retained its timelessness despite its Jacobean title, and the simple black-and-white practice togs on the performers are similarly untethered to any era. The freshness carried over to Charlotte Ballet's personnel: among the six dancers appearing in the opening "Theme" section, only David Morse has appeared on the Knight stage for the past three seasons. Elizabeth Truell made her Charlotte debut; Lucas Wilson-Bilbro, Chelsea Dumas, and Josh Hall all have two years or less; and Alessandra James (née Ball) returned after a six-year absence. Yet the Truell/Wilson-Bilbro, Dumas/Morse, and James/Hall couplings all looked like they had been forged years ago rather than stepping into the spotlight for the first time.
Teamed with Truell and Amanda Smith, Jordan Leeper was lyrically showcased in the "Melancholic" first variation, but the four non-members of the main company astounded me. Their seamless coordination with the three frontliners spoke to the strength of Ballet II, the fulfilled promise of the Academy, and the enviable vitality of the company's entire ecosystem. Perhaps the commonality of the dancers' training is bringing about a new level of synchronicity onstage that I've not seen at the Knight before. Paired with graceful-as-ever Addul Manzano – backed by another quartet of fine Academy students – the return of Anna Gerberich to the spotlight in the "Sanguinic" second variation affirmed that individualism has not been abandoned by this company for precision. The good news about Manzano is that he's back at full strength, but the great news about Gerberich is that she continues to grow artistically in her tenth season, substantially altered from her 2008 appearance in this segment. As the soubrette of the troupe, Gerberich has always been able to charm audiences with her own brand of perkiness and verve, but there is a liquefaction to her movements in this piece now that I don't think anyone else in the company can match for grace and musicality. On the female side of the company, Gerberich now shares dominion with Sarah Hayes Harkins, whose perfection of line and impeccable timing were spotlighted in the closing "Choleric" variation. In between these star ballerinas, Pete Leo Walker was no less charismatic leading the "Phlegmatic" third variation, backed by the same budding talents we had seen with Leeper.
Earlier this year, Walker emphatically reestablished his pre-eminence alongside Manzano at the male forefront of Charlotte Ballet with his stunning portrayal of the mighty Othello and his harrowing disintegration. But his work as the Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons may strike subscribers as even more arresting, partly because his evil is so much more purposeful, arrogant, and calculated – and partly because Janes sticks to the original storyline rather than blurring the familiar De Laclos characters with omissions and modernizations. We lose much of the contretemps between Valmont and the devilish Marquise de Merteuil as well as the complexities of his overtures to the spiritual Madame de Tourvel, but Janes is resourceful in retaining the essentials of the plot. At key moments, the video design by John P. Woodey – executed by Chuck Bludsworth, Rick Fitts, and Civilized Films across a dozen screens perpetually hovering over the action – zeroes in on the essence of things with pertinent photos, drawings, and text.
But Janes also insinuates new themes and motifs effectively to replace some of the nuances he has had to sacrifice. When we first see the wicked Merteuil, she is straitjacketed in a long, lurid red ribbon that is unspooled by two hospital orderlies as her flashbacks begin. The red color is repeated in Merteuil's long stockings and in her fan, which she ominously taps on her thigh, stewing with jealousy and rage when her new lover, the Comte de Gercount, has the effrontery to propose marriage to the sweet virginal Cécile de Volanges. That same tapping to the beat of the music is repeated when Merteuil deploys fencing master Chevalier Danceny to deflower Cécile – in a sensational series of sexy sword dances performed by a vast ensemble – and when Danceny duels with Valmont. It may seem outrageous and excessive when a long red ribbon sprouts from the chest of the nobleman who is vanquished in that duel – until it becomes the belt that straitjackets Merteuil in her madness.
While the most lamentable difference between the Temperaments of 2008 and the 2014 revival is the absence of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra playing Hindemith's music, composer Ben Sollee has once again become involved in the visual and sensual splendor of Liaisons. Sollee performs his original score live on cello perched on a platform that mostly floats above the banks of video screens but occasionally dips down among the oversexed mortals. McBride's casting seems to fly in the face of the obvious, with Gerberich as the chaste matron Tourvel and Harkins as the youthful and naïve Cécile. Yet Gerberich is able to pour so much supple anguish into Tourvel's subjugation that her fresh youthfulness ceases to be a barrier while Harkins is able simulate a demure delicacy that is perfect for the lamblike Cécile. Of course, I'm still curious to see what the effect would be if Gerberich and Harkins swapped roles.
For the second time, the choreographer's wife, Rebecca Carmazzi Janes, plays the most intriguing role in Liaisons. Two years ago, she replaced Kara Wilkes as Merteuil late enough in the production process to create a contradiction between the person – and the costume – of the woman on the cover of the program booklet and the woman onstage. In the revival, Carmazzi Janes has come out of retirement as a guest artist for her second pass at the manipulative villain. Either because the choreography has been more fully tailored to conform with her personality and assets or because she he been able to gain a greater sense of ownership, she seems far more confident and commanding as the Marquise. She and Walker make for quite a study as Valmont and Merteuil vie for the upper hand. Both are wily, wicked, alluring, and arrogant, yet the reason for Merteuil's horrid triumph lies in the extra dimension she brings to all her sophisticated ploys, the element of calculated revenge. What we see in her timekeeping when she taps her fan on her thigh turns out to be the outward manifestation of the time bomb ticking inside.
This run ends with two performances on October 11. For details, see the sidebar.