The May 16 opening performance of the final program of Carolina Ballet's current season was introduced from the stage by Board Chairman Clayton Duncan as "eclectic," and that it was, but as such it was a perfect demonstration of what this troupe has become in four short years, and of what it can do. It got underway before a very good, but not full house at 8:15 p.m.
The opener was George Balanchine's 15-movement Who Cares? to songs of George Gershwin as adapted and arranged by Hershey Kay. The set designed by Jeff A.R. Jones featured side panels with art deco motifs and a backlit backdrop showing the Empire State and Chrysler buildings against a moonlit night sky framed in a leaded-pane window. Costumes by Steve Rubin were in keeping with the '30s style, the men's untied bow ties adding a nice casual touch for the light, carefree feel to their formal white shirts and tuxedo trousers. But there was nothing light about the quality of the dancing except in the occasional slightly out-of-sync movements of the five women in the opening dance number (after the overture "Strike up the Band"). An upright piano in the pit (played by Karl Moraski) added a honky-tonk overtone to the 54-member orchestra playing in a big-band style under the able baton of Alfred Sturgis, although it didn't seem to exude this feel as much as one might have wished, perhaps due to their numbers-real big bands weren't this big! Nor did they have the full orchestral instrumentation.
The audience ate this ballet up, applauding after virtually every number-applause well-deserved, but it did begin to wear and interrupt the flow of a work that is by its very nature choppy. Numbers of dancers as well as personnel varied from piece to piece-five women here, five men there, a couple, two couples, a solo-with the entire corps on stage for the rousing conclusion set to "I Got Rhythm." Particularly impressive for their smooth moves and interesting lifts were Margaret Severin-Hansen and Pablo Javier Perez dancing to "S'Wonderful," but all the numbers were lovely and easy on the eyes. Not being up on naming my Gershwin tunes, I'd have liked to have been better able to follow in the program so as to appreciate even more the associations between the dances and the songs, and to see who was dancing (I lost track very early on), but the house lights were too low for that to be possible. This is probably a problem impossible to surmount, alas; I experienced it in March with Handel's Messiah also.
After an intermission, we saw two one-movement ballets in the classical tradition performed before a simple backlit scrim. (Ross Kolman designed the fine lighting for all the ballets.) First up was Balanchine's "Valse Fantaisie" to music by Mikhail Glinka, with the aforementioned pair dancing the pas de deux backed up by four women. After a brief pause, we watched Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov in another pas de deux, "Valse Triste," to Jean Sibelius' work of that title, and his "Scene with Cranes" from Kuolema, choreographed by Peter Martins of the NY City Ballet. This was the most exquisite performance of the evening, the dancers exhibiting remarkable and breathtaking precision and control, leaving the audience breathless. The orchestra seemed more in its element with this music.
Another intermission allowed a massive set change for the main event, the world première of Robert Weiss' choreography for the orchestral Suite from Igor Stravinsky's Firebird. When the curtain rose, the audience was confronted with two huge panels bearing gold Oriental designs on a solid black background close behind the curtain, blocking the view of the stage. These served as sliding doors, as in a Japanese theatre, opening to give a view into the fantasy world we were about to enter and closing to permit backdrop changes. And when they did open, oohs and aahs were heard as the enchanted forest backdrop, painted with vegetation motifs and some forest animals in a style suggesting to me the art of the countries ending in "-stan," was revealed. A subsequent set showed a walled castle, and the final one, a sort of throne room. Jones was responsible for this magic kingdom. The audience remained in enraptured silence as the ballet unfolded, with costumes by David Heuvel as clever and gorgeous as these astounding sets. Some for the live animal characters reminded me of the technique used for the sheep in the aforementioned Messiah.
The dancing was superb, also, precise and showy without being extravagant, and there was real movement; everyone dances, not just the Firebird, and only the final wedding scene in the "throne room" is pageant-like. At times it seemed like mass perpetual motion. Isanusi Garcia did the honors as Kastchei, the Sorcerer; Mikhail Nikitine as Prince Ivan; Lilyan Vigo as the Firebird; and Cherilyn Lee as Princess Katarina. The orchestra shone likewise, but you almost forgot it was there, so much was there to see. What a pleasure it was, and how much more thrilling, on the other hand, to hear this wonderful lyrical, melodic music as a background and in the setting for which it was written instead of in the concert hall where it is most frequently encountered.
The entire conception was brilliant, and it was brilliantly realized and executed. This is an exciting choreography that should have a bright future. There is so much to watch and focus on that it is impossible to take it all in. The Firebird's smashing of Kastchei's precious egg with a flash and a pop startled. The costumes sparkled. The whole performance just dazzled. It seemed to stun the viewers in a way one imagines that the 1910 première did its spectators. They remained engrossed from beginning to end, and leapt to their feet with hearty applause at its conclusion. The audience's disbelief that it was actually witnessing such a colorful spectacle right here in Raleigh was palpable! Go witness it yourself at one of the remaining performances. See our calendar for details.