We didn't have to wait long before realizing that Charlotte Ballet didn't bring Hope Muir aboard as their new artistic director so that she would meekly follow in her predecessor's footsteps. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux made a lasting impression on Charlotte's dance scene during his 20 years at the helm, and the first program at Knight Theater after his retirement, Fall Works, paid a graceful tribute to him with George Balanchine's Apollo, one of Bonnefoux's most important roles during his years as principal dancer with New York's City Ballet. Sandwiching that tribute, last staged here by Patricia McBride in 2010, were a pair of choreographers we will no doubt be seeing more of after this 2017-18 season opener, Johan Inger and Javier de Frutos. Our first taste of Inger, Walking Mad, didn't disappoint, and the de Frutos finale, Elsa Canasta, was a foretaste of the excitement he'll surely be bringing to the Knight next March, when his fairytale pop ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, gets its American premiere.
Due partly to technical difficulties, Inger wound up upstaging de Frutos on opening night. Walking Mad began with a quiet surprise as Ryo Suzuki, dressed in a simple coat and bowler hat, climbed onto the darkened stage from the orchestra pit, continuing to advance toward the rear until we became aware of a rather plain-looking wooden wall. Without any warning, the whole wall advanced, sweeping Suzuki downstage with all the finesse of a snowplow. Signs of life appeared comically at both ends of this wall, and our presumption that the wall was ordinary – or stationary – was soon demolished in the traffic of the dancers. Eight more of them would emerge. Doors appeared in the wall for entrances and exits, the wall separated and folded, and for another episode, lay flat on the stage like a palette. If that weren't bizarre and sufficiently unpredictable, what we saw from the dancers and what we heard in the music compounded the surprises.
Boys streamed out in nerdy little party hats, followed by girls in the same pointy hats. Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" sprang up loudly, each new pass of the melody roughly marking the beginning of an unpredictable episode. Moods swung suddenly from party jubilation to trembling anxiety. Loose joyous limbs were succeeded by spasmodic tremblings of fear and anxiety, the 2001 choreography often resembling the Gaga dance idiom we've previously seen in Ohad Naharin's work. Most affecting, perhaps, were the trepidations of Elizabeth Truell in her duets and trios, almost fetal in her withdrawal at times, throwing partners violently into the wall at others, and getting thrown in return. There were even moments when dancers were almost impossibly splayed on the wall. Suddenly, as the "Bolero" was growing wild, it seemed to stop as the wall went into yet another permutation, folding so that its two halves were perpendicular, Truell huddled in the corner. But the sound was only being muffled while she was in her agonizing isolation, returning to full blast as suddenly and unpredictably as the volume had dropped. The audience went wild as the Ravel concluded, but the spotlight on Suzuki signaled that Inger wasn't done. Set to the somber "Für Alina" by Arvo Pärt, the choreographer added a coda, Suzuki making fumbling attempts to connect with Sarah Hayes Harkins before grabbing his coat, his hat, and fading upstage. The spare piano solo gently underscored the pathos.
After this dark and jagged piece, Balanchine's Apollo was a very sunny contrast as Josh Hall portrayed the sun god. McBride, carrying on at Charlotte Ballet as associate artistic director after her husband's retirement, had to be pleased with Hall's equipoise and majesty, but there was also scintillating work from Apollo's Three Muses. Drab as they had looked in Walking Mad, Harkins as Polyhymnia and Chelsea Dumas as Calliope returned resplendently. Apollo handed out the appropriate props before the soloing began to Igor Stravinsky's score, a plastic scroll to Calliope signifying poetry, a comedy mask for Polyhymnia signifying theatre and rhetoric, and a lyre to Terpsichore signifying music and dance – Alessandra Ball James making her first appearance of the season. Since he is often depicted with a lyre, Apollo inevitably chose Terpsichore for the climactic pas de deux after the second of his solos, and James certainly earned the honor. If Harkins is the most fearless and precise member of the troupe, I must say that James remains the most lyrical by virtue of her supreme fluidity. Just watch her arms and hands in this piece and you'll see the essence of James's musicality. After the Muses' mini-festival of the arts, it's always satisfying – and slightly surprising – to see the Muses teaming with Apollo to form a radiant sun in the last tableau.
Solo brilliance and individuality weren't absent from Elsa Canasta, a piece built on familiar Cole Porter songs and a rarity among his works, "Within the Quota" – a ballet written for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, the same impresario and dance company that premiered Apollo in 1928. Diaghilev rejected Porter's ballet even though the composer had just rescued him and his company when they skipped out of a swank Venice hotel without paying their bill. The de Frutos piece premiered in 2003 with Muir in the cast while she was still a member of the Rambert Dance Company in London, but it has undergone some intriguing evolution. Taking his cue from Ethel Merman's rousing recording of Porter's "Ridin' High" (from Red, Hot and Blue), de Frutos originally had a female hostess at his party scene, his title a mash-up of famed hostess Elsa Maxwell and a bygone card-game fad that could have infused her parties.
Now the host is Levi Kreis, the charismatic singer and actor who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet. Here he's in a jazzy Tin Pan Alley mode, a "sort of modern day Cole Porter," according to the description that de Frutos sent Kreis. Needless to say, Ben Pope has had to transpose the keys of his original orchestration to accommodate Kreis, and he has added a prologue that didn't exist in London. To make the new Charlotte Ballet presentation more of a singular event, Pope conducted his own score live for the first time, leading an ensemble that included a string quartet and an octet from Charlotte's Jazz Arts Initiative.
Staging by Muir was less than ideal, for the varied percussion that might have blared forth in "Ridin' High" when Kreis summoned bells, horns, and gongs was almost entirely interred in the orchestra pit. Worse still, Kreis was scandalously overmiked, garbling many of Porter's familiar lyrics and rendering whatever he was saying in the Prologue unintelligible. Whether or not that malfunction threw the performance into disarray was hard to say. Kreis was listed as a participant in the instrumental "Within the Quota" segment, but he was gone after his wonderful interpretation of "So in Love" was compromised by sound problems. Nevertheless, with a passionate duet between Hall and Peter Mazurowki as Kreis sang, "So in Love" remained the most poignant episode in this piece, clearly depicting the anguish of forbidden love. Porter's empathy and Kreis' rendition were particularly apt here, coming from gay artists.
Kreis' absence during Porter's ballet music, a stunning orchestration from Pope, may have been a last-minute change by Muir after programs had been printed. Or perhaps Kreis was backstage frantically trying to contact the soundbooth. Either way, something major needed to be fixed before the next performance. When Kreis returned, so did the glorious James, this time partnered by James Kopecky. Adding delicious dimensions of danger and difficulty to the choreography, set designer Jean-Marc Puissant spread a modernistic staircase across half of the Knight stage, moodily lit by Bruno Poet. Ensemble action and the duets played up and down this rising horizontal expanse, and I found myself holding my breath during several jumps and lifts.
Aside from the deafening mic, my biggest disappointment was Kreis' physical detachment during the ensemble segments. He needed to be closer, truly communicating with the dancers, and I regretted his absence during the ballet, which ran over eleven minutes in the piano version I obtained prior to the performance. And if he's truly our host, Muir and de Frutos ought to consider having Cole Porter's guests pay attention to him. I'm not sure anybody onstage favored Kreis with a single glance.
This program will be repeated on Oct. 20 and twice on Oct. 21. For details, see the sidebar.