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It is natural for us in the central part of North Carolina to feel a little prideful about our ballet company, the Carolina Ballet. The appearance of a professional ballet company in any city indicates the flowering of a certain strain of culture, and, to the extent that we nurture and support such companies, we are right to be proud. But before we in the Research Triangle area get the big head and assert that our "high culture" companies and orchestras set the standard for the state, let's remember Charlotte and its achievements.
Raleigh's Carolina Ballet is now in its eighth season – but Charlotte's North Carolina Dance Theatre is in its 35th. Founded in Winston-Salem in 1970 by Robert Lindgren, then Dean of Dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts, as a professional extension of the school's teaching program, NCDT had an amazing run as a regional touring company. The troupe played Spoleto USA and Spoleto, Italy. They danced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at the Joyce and were invited to the Kennedy Center. In 1982, the NEA named NCDT the nation's highest-ranked touring company.
In 1985, Lindgren left NCDT to become director of the School of American Ballet, and assistant artistic director Salvatore Aiello became director, moving the company to Charlotte five years later. He built a following, settling his dancers in as the resident company at the handsome Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, and he soon began receiving on-going operating support from the Arts and Science Council. (NCDT's most recent basic operating grant from the ASC totals nearly $1 million.) By all accounts, Aiello was much loved and admired, and his sudden death in 1995 could have shattered the company. But Jerri Kumery, a former New York City Ballet dancer whom Aiello had brought in as ballet mistress, stepped into the void, acting as artistic director until the arrival in 1996 of her former colleagues from the NYCB and its School of American Ballet.
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, now artistic director of NCDT (and a choreographer), and Patricia McBride, associate artistic director, brought decades of the highest level of training and dance experience and well-honed teaching abilities. Bonnefoux began with the Paris Opera Ballet, danced with the Bolshoi and the Kirov, and went on to the NYCB, where he met the extraordinary Patricia McBride, the youngest principal female dancer ever at the New York City Ballet, and the star of dozens of ballets by Balanchine and by Jerome Robbins. Both taught at the School of American Ballet before being lured to Charlotte, where they have instilled an even greater vitality into the company.
The NCDT opened its 35th season on September 22 (this reviewer saw the performance on the 23rd) with a program called "Celebrate the Classics." This excellent program began with Bonnefoux's "Danses Brillantes," set to the music of Edouard Lalo. Led by Alessandra Ball and André Teixeira, the movements were very open and clear, neither cluttered nor fussy. The arm work was especially strong and elegant, and there was an impressive sequence of traveling fouettées. Each segment of the dance included lots of nice repeating forms and a rhythmic repetition of visual lines that augmented the aural ones.
Although the entire program was danced to recorded music, that was not such a trial as it is to Carolina Ballet-goers in Fletcher Theater, where the equipment is not adequate for the music. The acoustics are very nice in the lovely Belk Theatre (the Charlotte Symphony has a warm, gleaming sound there), and while they could still use some more speakers to enrich the recorded sound, at least one feels that one is hearing the music, whereas in Fletcher Theater the sound is dull and flat.
I was particularly struck by this in the NCDT program's center section of three pas de deux from well-known dances. The centerpiece was Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene, with choreography by Septime Webre, danced to the music of Sergei Prokofiev. I had, the previous week (on September 15), seen the Carolina Ballet's version of Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Robert Weiss and set to the same music, but the difference in sound quality in Charlotte was such that the music burst on me as if I'd not heard it in years. This is an issue the Carolina Ballet must grapple with as they turn away from live music for their performances.
I had been unhappy with Carolina Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, and not just because of the music. It was the first of Weiss' choreography I'd seen that left me completely cold. First, there was a dreadfully bad voice-over to set the scene: an anonymous voice slurring and stumbling over Shakespeare's words. Then there was a sorry excuse for the opening sword-fighting scene. I would rather they had danced the scene, but if they must brandish arms, I do wish the company would hire a competent fight director. By the time Juliet (Lilyan Vigo) finally came onstage, the piece had completely lost my attention. Vigo pulled things together as best she could, but neither she nor any of the other dancers had much to work with. Weiss trots out all his favorite tropes, but somehow, in this program, his vocabulary spells pas de pastiche. Worse, he attempts to shore up the story with excessive and unnecessary stage business and unsubtle pantomime.
This horrible pantomine business, especially between Romeo (Timour Bourtasenkov) and Juliet, sapped the story of it emotional power. It was actually boring. Why did Weiss not have these wonderful dancers dance the story and the feelings? I wondered that again while watching the NCDT's Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, danced by Rebecca Carmazzi and Sasha Jones.
Now that was dancing, exhilarating dancing! One saw the story clearly but – more importantly – also felt every nuance of the pair's shifting emotions. Choreographer Webre gives the dancers every opportunity to express emotion in form and movement, and Carmazzi and Jones took full advantage of the choreography's strengths. They were even able to convey the most vital and delicate aspect of that scene – in those moments, Romeo and Juliet do more than flare into romance: both leave their childhoods for the life of men and women, subject not to protection but to all the dangers of adulthood.
The contrast was not as extreme between NCDT's "Black Swan" pas de deux from Marius Petipa's choreography for Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and that of the Carolina Ballet's version Robert Weiss choreographed last spring. Traci Gilchrest and Daniel Wiley danced Odette and the Prince for NCDT on the 23rd and did a wonderful job. I would have preferred a darker edge to Odette, such as the one Lilyan Vigo brought to her performance in Weiss' version, but Gilchrest danced beautifully and exuded quite a bit of power.
The NCDT's third pas de deux was the wedding dance from Sleeping Beauty, with – again – Petipa's choreography to Tchaikovsky's music. As danced by Kati Hanlon Mayo and Jhe W. Russell, it was a happy confection. I should say "joyous," as befits the union of the brave and handsome knight and the rescued maiden. It ended with my hoping for the opportunity to see an NCDT production of the entire work.
NCDT closed its "Classics" program with Balanchine's large and wonderful "Serenade," set to Tchaikovsky's Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra. This was the first work Balanchine made in America, and it contains many amusing life incidents he swept up and incorporated into the dance – someone falls down, someone is late. Although "Serenade" has a stately quality, its serious mien is mitigated by these injections of silliness. NCDT achieved not only that balance but also conveyed the uncomplicated strength, self-possession, and modernity that Balanchine found so entrancing in American women upon his arrival in the States. The company's spacing and their pacing were just right, with the images held just long enough before breaking into the next series of movements. Nicholle Rochelle was particularly noteworthy as the woman who comes in late, but the whole cast radiated grace and strength. Their happiness to be dancing lapped over us in the orchestra and surely in the mezzanine and on up, even into the third balcony. Five hours, roundtrip, was not too long to drive for this.