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There are many rewards to the viewer from following an artist's output over time, and not least of these lies in coming to understand the great themes that motivate him. Minutes into the Carolina Ballet's May 31 performance of three ballets based on stories by Hans Christian Andersen, I realized that in all three the company would be continuing its work concerning the power of beauty and of freedom, the complicated relationship between art (or artifice) and nature, and the possibilities of physical and spiritual metamorphosis.
The evening began with "The Nightingale," choreographed by Damian Woetzel (a principal with the New York City Ballet) and danced to Stravinsky's The Song of the Nightingale and his Fireworks . The orchestra, consisting of members of the North Carolina Symphony, with Alfred Sturgis conducting with aplomb and panache, played beautifully throughout the program, and in these Stravinsky works the warm, resonant sounds of the bowed bass (Craig Brown, principal) and the sweet purity of the flutes (Anne Whaley Laney, principal) singing the nightingale's song were especially pleasing.
The piece opens with a gorgeous burst of color controlled by rigorous line: dancers in richly colored brocades appear with paper lanterns to attach to the bamboo poles that have descended across the stage from above. The poles then rise above the dancers, creating the ambiance of the Chinese imperial palace by the simplest means.
The ladies of the court wear pink, the imperial soldiers, blue, and the children and the chamberlain (Marin Boireu) are in red. Woetzel has given the corps de ballet several very nice dances full of interlocking patterns that make the most of the colorful costumes, and in addition to skipping onto the stage and looking adorable, the little children got to do some real dancing. The Emperor, danced by Timour Bourtasenkov, is most glorious in gold - his regal brilliance further enhanced by the gray of Margaret Severin-Hansen's simple Nightingale costume. With her extreme slenderness and gentle, delicate precision, Severin-Hansen was a good choice for this role. Her movements have become increasingly controlled and elastic over the course of this season, and she makes something fine of the very pretty dance when she refuses to be caged.
But no one in the company has the stage presence of Melissa Podcasy, who appears as both the jeweled mechanical nightingale and as Death. In the story, the mechanical bird so captivates the Emperor and the court that no one notices at first that the real bird has flitted away - and the audience for the ballet hardly notices her leaving, either. She returns to the poor fisherman who always stopped his work to hear the beauty of her song. She leaves the Emperor to languish under the spell of the artificial bird - which, shrugging off her bejeweled covering, soon becomes a figure of death, leaping onto the Emperor's chest like a Harpy, while the court ladies dance around them, Sirens of Death.
This frightening scene is interrupted by the Nightingale, returned to save the Emperor, who had once been moved to tears by her song. It is fascinating to see Podcasy's fierce power neutralized by the gentle Nightingale. The sweet bird brings the Emperor back from the dark cliff of death, but she will not stay. The ballet ends with a perfect coda: the Nightingale returns with her glorious song to the poor fisherman in his boat, they turn to faceless silhouettes as a full moon rises behind them, and the stage goes dark.
The evening ended with "The Ugly Duckling," choreographed by another guest, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who has done a great deal of work for Broadway and for film as well as for the ballet. It was danced to music composed for the story by Michael Moricz. Shaun Taylor-Corbett sat to one side of the stage and read the story as it was danced. He has a pleasant voice, and the comforting feeling of being read to helped mitigate the irritation felt at the excess of lush string arrangements in the score.
The "Ugly Duckling" story is too well known to need any recapitulation, but that doesn't mean the tale itself doesn't need to be retold. Every child needs to learn its lesson, and every adult needs periodic reminders of it. The intriguing thing here, though, is thinking about it in relation to the Carolina Ballet's recently performed Messiah . Dare I compare the Duckling to the Christ figure? There do seem to be some parallels.
Most people wouldn't notice, though. This ballet is a feel-good piece, full of cute animal costumes and Broadway-esque dances. Although, mystifyingly, Lara O'Brien as the Duckling did not get the grand dance she deserved when she changed into the Swan; it was charming and fun and fairly satisfying for what it was - but it was not what I would call valuable. It left the audience on a high note but not in an elevated state of mind. I would have preferred to start the program with the "Duckling" and end it with the more subtle "Nightingale" and the riveting beauty of its final image.
The real meat of the program lay in the middle dance, "The Shadow," choreographed by Robert Weiss. I can remember being upset by this story as a child: things do not turn out well in the end, and its meaning and moral are deeply ambiguous. Is it a Walker Percy-like tale of the self divided from itself and so unable fully to live? Is it about the good (light) side and the bad (dark) side of a person? Is it about maintaining balance within the soul and in the world? Is it an artist's plaint against the world which cares neither for him nor for his work? Is it a statement that, no matter the world's seductions, only the art can be the artist's true love? It takes Weiss five pieces of music (by Khachaturian, Ligeti, Kabalevsky, Fauré, and Rachmaninov*), screens of text dropping down intermittently to move the narrative along, and most of his dance troupe, but he makes the story all these things and more .
The best part of the "more" is the thrilling dancing by Mikhail Nikitine as the Poet and Timour Bourtasenkov as his Shadow. Bourtasenkov has such a huge presence that it is shocking to see that he is actually smaller than Nikitine. The Shadow leaves the Poet bereft and goes off into the world, acquiring an impure power, and their duet before he goes - it starts as a shadow dance, with the dancers separated by a scrim - is at once one of the most memorable parts of the ballet and a fine exhibition of both dancers' strengths.
Less satisfying is Podcasy (as Poetry), dancing with Lilyan Vigo (the Princess "Who Sees too Well"). Podcasy is one hell of a dancer, and when she is "on" you can't take your eyes from her. But I have admired Vigo very much every time I've seen her - for her grace and her technique and for her own ineffable style, in which she can hold her own on the stage with Podcasy. But it appears that she has been studying Podcasy a little too closely, adopting Podcasy's attitudes and postures and abandoning her own sweeter, more liquid style in favor of a punchier, more angular one. I don't think this is an improvement in general, and especially not when the two women are dancing together, because the delicious contrast is erased. But that may have been a purposeful choice. As unnerving, almost obscene, as it was to see Weiss creating movements for Vigo that I'd come to think of as "signature" Podcasy - and then to see her dancing like Podcasy - in this ballet, it enhanced the story of love and theft and art and cruelty. "The Shadow" will not soon fade in memory, and if we are lucky, it will return in another season.
*For the record, the music used in "The Shadow" consists of excerpts from Khachaturian's Masquerade Suite, Ligeti's Cello Concerto, Kabalevsky's The Comedians , Fauré's "Pavane," and Rachmaninov's "Vocalise."