Carolina Ballet has done it again. Company artistic director Robert Weiss and his frequent guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett have each created a new ballet highlighting the conceptual connections between this complex performance art and both painting and music, while cosseting the audience with simple pleasure. Conceived to link the Carolina Ballet with the NC Museum of Art's immensely popular exhibition"Monet in Normandy," Monet Impressions' two dances are inspired by, rather than based on, Monet's painting. As danced in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium on January 11 (their premieres), both ballets were appropriately impressionistic. The program continued through the 14th.
One of the interesting things about Impressionism, the artistic movement Claude Monet personifies, is that it continues to bring us fresh understandings and renewed pleasures more than 100 years after Picasso et al. superceded it with their brash inventions. We continue to love Impressionism for its beauty, for its wondering engagement with the natural world, for the way it seduces, rather than berates us, into a noticing frame of mind. While there is a great deal of sweetness and pleasant feeling in much of Impressionist painting, in the work of the masters and mistresses there is also an underlying rigor that leaves little room for rank sentiment. That's even clearer in the new music of the period, like the Poulenc, Debussy and Chausson pieces used in these dances, in which even the playful passages can't be satisfied with pretty but must be beautiful even while presaging the dissonant splinterings soon to come.
Monet lived well into the 20th century, not dying until 1926, but he remained a 19th century artist, pursuing sublimity to the end. Here we are, a hundred years after his prime, 90 years after the "Great War" that made a mockery of the very idea of the sublime; 70 years after Hitler began his depredations; 60+ years after the Bomb that banished all sense of security; barely one year after Hurricane Katrina rearranged our understanding of our relation to Nature, seemingly hurtling toward a cataclysmic conflagration — and we are desperate with the thirst for the beautiful, the sublime. Is this anachronistic? Can the 20th century have really destroyed those palaces of the soul? Are we hiding our heads, just not facing up to reality, to ask for lovely consonance? Is it all to be ugliness, greed, war, and filth? I'd rather believe that artists like Weiss and his company, as they hold up the banner of past glories, are an advance patrol scouting a new route for the 21st century, a way past the death stink of the wrecked decades behind us.
This is why, even when a piece is not perfect, their work is so important. This is why, even when Weiss' choices seem safe and unchallenging, the whole enterprise is imbued with risk. Who dares to stand up for Beauty and be mocked? So few. To create it in ballet's ephemeral forms, out of rhythm and passing sounds, colored lights and tulle; out of lines and shapes erased in half an instant; out of the tilt of a neck, the angle of a leg, the flutter of fingers that beckon toward the greater underlying and surrounding beauty — that is heroic.
So, "Picnic on the Grass," Taylor-Corbett's dance, and "The Gardens at Giverny," Weiss' new ballet, are far more than comfortable bourgeois diversions (though they are that, too). "Picnic," after its initial Altman-esque swirl, settles down into a series of glimpses into human love. Taylor-Corbett seems to believe, contrary to the common 20th century notion that "hell is other people," that the push and pull of personalities, the chase and catch and loss of love, the proximity and presence of other people is, if not heaven, at least the foundation for the harmony in which beauty can be found. Melissa Podcasy was especially touching as the tubercular Camille Monet, playing with her child, and Caitlin Mundth achieved just the right tone as Alice, who becomes Monet's second wife. Timour Bourtasenkov, the old flame who turns up at the picnic for a momentary tryst with his past love (the increasingly expressive Hong Yang), conveys an enormous load of feeling with his grace and noble demeanor.
The several scenes in Weiss' "Gardens" are more analogous to Monet's painted "effects" than are Taylor-Corbett's pieced narratives. I found "Gardens" the more powerful work, partly because gardens symbolize belief in life ongoing. Like Monet, a gardener is always striving to capture certain short-lasting effects, as is a choreographer. Weiss did indeed capture some hope-nourishing effects with his flowers, clouds and pools. Can anyone look upon a dancer who is a cloud, a rose, an iris, a water lily, and not see through to the sublime regenerating forms they signify, not feel hope swell for our continued survival?
We humans may not make it through the 21st century, or even another year at the rate we are going. But for a precious hour you can forget about war and its corrupt business partners and revel in much more important realities in "The Gardens at Giverny." It may not save the world, but it certainly makes it a better place to be right now.