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The Triangle Youth Ballet took on a tremendous challenge with its new production of Sleeping Beauty, which premiered in Chapel Hill High School’s Hanes Auditorium. The original of this ballet, one of the greatest in the classical tradition, was created in 1890 by Marius Petipa, working in concert with Peter Il’yich Tchaikovsky, who scored the music to fit Petipa’s concept. TYB’s associate director Christine Grider choreographed this version, following Petipa’s form, but adapting the whole to be more suited to the numbers and skills of the student dancers of the TYB School and performing ensemble. This ambitious effort of community-based performance was made even more unusual and pleasurable by the music — performed live by the Tchaikovsky Virtuosi, conducted by TYB music director Andrew McAfee.
One of the problems of connoisseurship is that it can diminish the enjoyment of art that does not attain one’s ever more exacting standards. Once one has seen great professional dancing, or heard music in an acoustically perfect hall, it is impossible not to desire those delights each time the curtain rises. But what a sad loss it would be to not appreciate the good of what is offered, when it is the best of which the performers are currently capable. There was nothing exquisite happening here, and there were more than a few awkward moments, but there was plenty to impress a viewer completely unconnected to any of the dancers, and there were some big rewards, too.
First of all, this is a long ballet — a prologue and three acts, running nearly two hours — and everyone knew his or her part(s). This is a feat. Clearly these particular middle and high-schoolers do not suffer from attention-deficit disorder, and there is something bracing about so much steely determination clothed in satin and fairy tulle. Second, the stage is a little small for the number of dancers in the big scenes, and the dancers handled the compact spatial relations without so much as a bump. Third, these kids managed to inject their characters with actual personalities, which went far in covering deficiencies in ballet technique.
The evening’s most exciting moments were provided by Mary Wurzelmann, dancing the Princess Aurora. When she first appeared, she was moving to the (recorded) beat to which she had prepared — but within seconds, she responded to the music as it was being played in the pit, and began to truly dance. It was wonderful to see. Wurzelmann was especially free in her solos, and was notable throughout for making all her turns right on the mark. Her Prince Florimund was regally danced by Christiaan Ruff, who, though a little tentative in his partnering, has excellent form and elegant line. The younger Prescott Ruff has as much dash and almost equally good form in his smaller roles.
The Lilac Fairy has a very big part, and she was danced with unfailing aplomb by Eva Stein, who was especially nice in the scene in which she reveals the sleeping princess to the dejected young prince. Choreographer Grider made much of the evil fairy Carabosse, and Laura Casteel clearly had a great time with the part, aided by the antics of a half-dozen wild-haired attendants. Casteel also stood out in the Polonaise that opened the final act. Also in the third act, the Bluebird was danced by guest artist and former TYB member Erick Uphoff, who supported and urged Ellen Ambrose, as the Princess Florine, into dancing out to the very edge of her technique. Her amazed and delighted expression as he flew her around and upside down only added to the performance.
That same expression lit the faces of the entire cast as the music swelled out its last notes and the curtain came down on the final tableau. The dancers should have been smiling: Their Sleeping Beauty was a remarkable accomplishment.
Note: Ballet training in the Triangle has come a very long way, with several schools offering comprehensive lessons, pre-professional training, and, naturally, recitals or performances. Among them are City Ballet in Raleigh and Infinity Ballet Conservatory in Apex, which have already given their spring performances, but The Ballet School of Chapel Hill will hold its recitals May 31/June 1.