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Raleigh Ballet Theatre, the performing arm of the Raleigh School of Ballet, celebrated its longevity with a gala Spring Repertoire concert in Fletcher Theater of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. The large cast of pre-professional dancers was augmented with returning alumnae, now professionals, as well as guests from the Carolina Ballet. The wide-ranging program showcased the students’ considerable achievements, and the choreography of several of the school’s and theatre’s teachers and directors, for a very enjoyable evening.
I spend a lot of time watching the most talented and skilled professional dancers in the world, but there is one thing those dancers can no longer bring to the stage: the unfettered joy of dancing when it is not a job of work. Not to say they don’t have a good time, or convey the thrill of getting a sequence just right, but they guard their stage personas more carefully than the young dancers. RDT’s young dancers, even the graduating pre-professionals, kept me smiling with their own pleasure in the marvel of it all. What RDT artistic director Mary LeGere called their “dedication, discipline and determination” has given them strength, skill and poise, without stripping them of frivolity and fun — even when the ballet they danced was very sad.
The program included two premieres. Margot K. Martin, soloist with the Carolina Ballet and on the faculty at Raleigh School of Ballet, presented "This Sweet Life," honoring her friend and colleague Elena Shapiro, who was killed last year by a drunk driver. The finality of death; the invisible wall between the worlds of the living and the dead, and the longed-for possibility of meeting again on the other side, are big intractable topics, but Martin handled them with a beautiful simplicity, and without any tendency toward the maudlin. Her idea was not complex, but it was remarkably effective, and I was not the only one mopping my eyes when the lights went up. Perhaps even better than the dance itself was the way in which the half-dozen young women had been impressed with Martin’s own dynamic, joyous style of dancing, so that ephemeral phenomenon has its own chance at eternity.
Mary LeGere’s new "Mountain Songs," set to Robert Ward’s 1991 "Bath County Rhapsody," was far more light-hearted. The music (recorded by the Ciompi Quartet) has echoes of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and the dance contains quotes from Martha Graham’s dance of the same name. The men are costumed (by Nina Jonson) very much like Erick Hawkins in that dance, with snug high-waisted pants and peasant shirts (while the women’s full-skirted dresses are vaguely medieval rather than in 19th century frontier style). The choreography features square and circle dances, and its lively, flowing patterns are as attractive as pieced quilts airing on a breezy day. There was some very nice dancing by the ensemble, including some good lifts.
"Twittering Machine," titled after Paul Klee’s 1922 painting and similarly spiky, strange and amusing, was choreographed in 1998 by Susan Carlin Galdy, The 13 dancers’ white unitards were hand painted by Michelle Murray and Gillian Galdy with stripes and swirls of saturated color, and looked great in motion. The dance is a little derivative, somewhat Pilobolean, and includes an image straight out of Ailey’s Night Creature, but it was nonetheless enjoyable. It requires the dancers to do a lot of silly things without bursting out laughing, and to hold odd positions. They were very good at both.
The program included two solos, the more interesting of which by far was RDT alum Jessica Higgins' highly energized work to Gina Gardner-Walther’s "Epiphany," set to music by Arvo Pärt, as well as a duet, danced by Sarah Newton and Eugene Barnes. Newton, who is a 2009 graduate of the pre-professional division of the RSB and now an apprentice at Carolina Ballet, moved beautifully to Nina Simone’s song "Lilac Wine" (choreography by Christian Clark). She was partnered by Eugene Barnes from Carolina Ballet; a male dancer more capable of connecting emotionally with his partner and his audience would have greatly increased the power of the dance.
The finale, a classical ballet by Mary LeGere, was the pretty, and at times elegant, Divertimento in D (Mozart) which premiered in 1996 at the Carolina Ballet. Leads were Ashley Hathaway, another RDT alum and Carolina Ballet apprentice, and Eugene Barnes (who seems more at ease in larger group dances). Lovely girls on pointe, in white tulle and satin — perfect for the first day of spring. However, the most memorable dance of the evening stepped away from ballet expectations, while exploiting its tropes.
Being performed for the first time at RDT, Megan Marvel’s 2002 dance for four women is one of the slyest things I’ve ever seen on pointe. "The Art of Playing Tastefully" (music by Francesco Geminiani) depicts the young women playing a succession of card games, and edging from childish innocence toward the edge of sexual experience. There are no tableaux, only continuous motion, as they work through all the classic games with their red and white cards in their fabulous black costumes by Michele Ferris. These completely subvert the demure quality generally associated with young girls in ballet — the strappy black leotards are cut low at the neck and high on the leg; the black tulle overskirts, bicep sleeve puffs and black choker ribbons are completely flirtatious. The final card game is, naturally, strip poker. We see the petulant loser throw down her cards and remove clothing items one by one. But when she unties her skirt, we see the joke’s on us: she’s got the Ace of Diamonds tucked away in her waistband. She, like this program, is a winner.