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Leonce, Prince of Popo, is chronically bored. Occasionally, he gets into mischief with his pal Valerio, toting around his little boombox, whence come the sounds of Cole Porter and Wilber Schwandt ("Dream a Little Dream of Me"), but mostly he just lies around, doing nothing. One day his father, the King, declares it's time for Leonce to marry – and with a particular princess in mind: Lena, Princess of Pipi. Naturally, having finally been granted something to do, Leonce flees. Meanwhile, Lena, also unwilling to marry a stranger, does the same, and they both end up meeting outside a tavern in Italy. Ironically, they fall in love, and though become separated, return home to the surprise that they happen to be marrying each other.
This is the story of Leonce and Lena, the 19th century satirical play by German writer Georg Büchner*, which was adapted into a ballet by artistic director of Ballet Zürich Christian Spuck and performed by Charlotte Ballet on October 24. The ballet premiered at Aalto Ballett Theater Essen in 2008; Charlotte Ballet's production is the ballet's U.S. premiere.
Spuck is an accomplished dancer and choreographer. He began his dancing career with contemporary companies such as the renowned Jan Lauwer's Needcompany and Anne Theresa de Keersmaeker's Rosas and later went on to perform with the Stuttgart Ballet. His choreographic career includes numerous works for companies that range from New York City Ballet to the Royal Ballet of Flanders to the Chicago-based Hubbard Street 2. According to Spuck, Leonce and Lena was created in 2008 from a request to create a "funny ballet."
Leonce and Lena is definitely funny. Dancers wore powdered faces and wigs (costumes by Emma Ryott), held goofy and dramatic tableaux, and occasionally danced popular dance moves like "the floss" and "the worm." These effects are easy comedy, but Spuck also finds humor through more clever and creative ways of movement, such as when Leonce (Colby Foss) was passed out and Valerio (Peter Mazurowski) tried to wake him up, blowing into Leonce's fist as though to re-inflate him; Leonce's derrière rose into the air with every puff.
Foss and Mazurowski danced wonderfully together, as well as apart. Both have great facility and are equal in projected expression, even if Foss is considerably taller than Mazurowski (who, by the way, was Billy Elliot on Broadway from 2011-12). Spuck presents an interesting mix of ballet technique and straight contemporary techniques, moving in and out of the floor seamlessly: Foss and Mazurowski were equally comfortable in the air as on the floor, performing multiple leaps and turns as well as rolls and slides with vigor and precision.
Lena (Sarah Hayes Harkins), too, has a confidante and friend: Her governess (Alessandra Ball James) accompanies Lena to Italy and eventually to Popo. Hayes Harkins and Ball James also have great facility and energy when they dance; both are long-legged and thin and can cut through space like flexible fishing wire. In flowy dresses and flat ballet slippers, the two weaved in and out of each other in duet and burst open in solo. When the two meet their male counterparts at the Italian tavern, they individually pair up (Lena with Leonce and the governess with Valerio) to flirt and explore sexual freedom.
Throughout the ballet is the sporadic and almost zombie-like peanut gallery of tavern folk and courtsmen (a tutor for Leonce, a Master of Ceremonies, a President, a District Attorney, etc.). Always in dark costumes, and usually against the dark, horizontal S-shaped set (also by Ryott, which stretched throughout the whole stage and moved to represent changing time and location), these corps characters provided the satire to this romantic comedy. All of the courtsmen are grumpy and foolish, wagging their fingers in disapproval and briskly moving through the space without even looking to see what's around. Obviously, they are out of touch with society, particularly with the young folk, like Leonce and Valerio. Meanwhile, the civilians aren't much better: The tavern men and ladies and wedding party move like robots or skeletons, sharply and in body isolations with blank stares or frowns on their made-up faces. Playwright Büchner, a revolutionary, commented on his government and society through these characters; Spuck is true to the satire through movement, dim lighting (by Martin Gebhardt), and dark sets and costumes.
Throughout the ballet, Spuck's movement was interesting and captivating, from intricate and rhythmic group phrases to bright and grandiose solo movement (particularly for Leonce). Perhaps the weakest moment of this strong ballet came from Leonce and Lena's pas de deux upon meeting in Italy. The ballet's overall score ranged from Johann Strauss to Bernd Alois Zimmerman to country sounds of Hank Cochran on Leonce's ubiquitous boombox, and in almost all cases, Spuck uses the music smartly, whether to choreograph to precisely or to juxtapose with stillness. However, for this section, Spuck chose a monotonous and dark electronic score, which repeats several times throughout the ballet. While this piece of music was effective for the brief, twitchy movements of the corps, prolonged for this pas de deux it became tedious in its monotony and detracted from the choreography.
That being said, Leonce and Lena was a highly entertaining, clever, and interesting ballet danced by truly excellent dancers, including members of Charlotte Ballet II and a few of the company-affiliated school's trainees. In an interview for Charlotte Ballet, Spuck said that Büchner's plays "moved literature into the contemporary art form." The same can be said of Spuck, with his melding of classical ballet and contemporary dance, particularly contemporary floor work.
Charlotte Ballet will continue with Leonce and Lena through Oct. 26 at the Knight Theater. See our sidebar for details.
*The playwright is perhaps best known for Woyzeck, adapted by Alban Berg for Wozzeck.