Tuesday night’s performance of Restless Creatures featuring Wendy Whelan, Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo marked the close of Carolina Performing Arts 10th season. Bringing the finest artists from every aesthetic genre to the stage, Carolina Performing Arts, and its director, Emil Kang, has spent the last ten years solidifying Chapel Hill and UNC as a national presence for the arts. I could not think of a better program than Restless Creatures to epitomize CPA’s byline of “Create, Present, Connect” and to close a decade of truly memorable and moving performances.
For those readers unfamiliar with Whelan, she is classical ballet royalty. As a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, her biography reads like a “who’s who” of contemporary American ballet. Premiering over forty roles written specifically for her over the course of her long career with the famous ballet, she retired in October of last year, and immediately launched into touring Restless Creature, the inaugural work of the Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative.
Indeed showcasing marvelous creatures who seem to need no rest, the show consists of four duets with four of the leading choreographers and dancers in contemporary classical ballet today. Between the four men are countless awards, including a MacArthur and a Guggenheim. The performance encompassed and illuminated all of the senses as the artful staging, costuming, and light design by David Michalek, Karen Young, and Joe Levasseur, respectively, elevated the already stunning dancing.
The evening began with the theater lights gradually dimming to almost complete darkness as the plaintive melody of Max Richter’s “Monologue” for solo cello filled the auditorium. A faintly lit Cerrudo, the choreographer to the first of the duets Ego Et Tu, danced alone. His movements undulated to music by Phillip Glass and other composers writing in a minimalistic style – a style that repeats endlessly, lulling listeners into a Zen induced daze. Whelan soon appeared and echoed Cerrudo. Together, under the dim lighting, their arms blurred creating washes of color that moved around the stage. They moved like the music, purposefully, yet indistinctly, creating more of an impression of dance than any single melody. The duet ended like it began – the lonely cello ushering us back to the present.
The next duet, Conditional Sentences, started without applause. Beamish and Whelan, under bright, punctuating lights, articulated Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor. As a recording of Glenn Gould fleetly and crisply annunciated Bach’s masterful voicing, so did Beamish and Whelan shape, bend, and step to the turns in the music. Beamish’s humorous, athletic, and sometimes subtle choreography hinted at his deep appreciation and obvious understanding of Bach’s lighthearted genius. With the occasional grin, Whelan and Beamish sculpted the sounds with gaiety and effortlessness.
The Serpent and the Smoke by Abraham began in stark darkness. Lit with two narrowly focused beams of light, one white, one a harsh yellow, the stage and audience were draped in shadows. From these shadows, Abraham, dressed in black, viciously sliced the air with jagged movements that hissed in the silence. The light barely reflected off his threatening form as he stalked and convulsed to the front of the stage. Whelan entered on the edge as if hesitant to join Abraham’s powerful presence. Hauschka and Hildur Guònadóttir’s pulseless, directionless sound world enhanced the ominous atmosphere. Strange and challenging, this piece does not invite the audience to sit back and enjoy. We were perched, tense and assaulted by the starkness and otherworldliness of the movements, music, and lighting.
The evening ended with Brook’s First Fall, a beautiful, soft piece set to excerpts from Glass’ String Quartet No. 3. As the music started, the curtains outlining the stage are lifted revealing the back and sides, all of the inner workings, of Memorial Hall. The dancers were no longer framed or presented. They were part of our environment, linked to us, and inviting us to the dance. Whelan was dressed in a flowing green sheath that gracefully brushed against Brook’s modest black shirt and pants. A piece that mostly hints at the traditional ballerina role of beautiful, longhaired ingénue, Whelan danced her role with inhuman grace. After an offering of increasingly intricate choreography that suggested divinely granted improvisatory skills, Brooks and Whelan lulled us into the closing moments, an epitome of grace and letting go. Whelan lusciously surrendered herself over Brooks’ precisely positioned back and as one piece, they fell silently to the ground. Over and over, they rise and fall again, each time appearing more as one creature, one restless yet determined creature to rise and dance again.