If there is anything tougher for a critic than having to say hard things about artists she admires, it is having little or nothing to complain about. The Carolina Ballet, with their supercharged performance on September 30, has put me in that happy state of lack. As danced on the opening Thursday night, the second program of this season’s Balanchine: Masterworks schedule was so close to perfect as makes no nevermind. Whatever had ailed the company last week was long gone.

Joan Accocella complains frequently in The New Yorker that the women in the New York City Ballet, formerly Balanchine’s own company, can’t or won’t any longer get their legs up. Maybe Joan should make a little trip to Raleigh, because this is not a problem among the women of the Carolina Ballet. Whether in arabesque, grand jeté, or good old high kick, they defy gravity and mortal restriction with grace and ease to achieve extraordinary effects of line and form. Thursday night this was particularly notable in the person of Margaret Severin-Hansen. She sashayed through Balanchine’s “Square Dance” with a superior degree of sass while maintaining perfect form. In the lifts, it almost seemed that her partner’s grasp was not raising her, but preventing her from soaring into the rafters.

The concept of “Square Dance,” while not deep or serious like that of last season’s “Apollo” or “Prodigal Son,” is charming and clever. Balanchine noticed a till-then-unsuspected similarity between violin music of the Baroque and the American fiddle music used for dances, so he combined Vivaldi (Concerto No. 10) and Corelli (Suite for Strings) with a square dance caller and set ballet movements into square dance patterns. It’s an incredible blend, and took a genius to think of it. Even better, the work is not a pastiche, in the post-modern ironic style, but a true synthesis. It is good-hearted and respectful of both traditions, and in its blending of cultures, truly American. The musicians – pianist Nancy Whelan and violinists Izabela Cohen and Tasi Matthews – played with sparkle and brought out the swingy qualities of the music, which was further emphasized by Martin Thompson’s sing-song calling of the steps (“and… here comes Peggy, she sure is leggy!”).

Despite those underlying patterns, the emphasis in “Square Dance” is not on image or shape-making but on motion. Severin-Hansen and Pablo Javier Perez were the leads, and as noted before, they are brilliant together. But some of the other pairings were also striking. Heather Eberhardt and Edgar Vardanian always work well together, both being tall with a bold and sweeping style. Attila Bongar, who is the slenderest and wiriest of the company’s men, was paired to excellent effect with the delicate Hong Yang. But the most pleasing surprise was new dancer Alessia Gelmetti, working with Christopher Rudd. There was good chemistry there, a match of forces. If Gelmetti is on a par with Rudd, we have a lot of pleasure in store.

Rudd’s amazing qualities were fully brought out in the evening’s middle work, Robert Weiss’ “Symposium (The Masks of Dionysos),” set to Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade. (Sadly, this wonderful music was not performed live.) This is the best piece of Weiss’ work that I have seen. He is at his strongest with a stage full of dancers, and his compositions for groups of men are particularly good – and the men in his troupe are fully up to the challenge of his turn-filled pattern making.

“Symposium” opens with Rudd alone on the floor, a dramatic dark shape outlined against a bright backdrop. Powerful images stud the work, popping out of the complex group dances and the vehement duets that alternate throughout. The men’s first group dance is breathtaking, but the most riveting images were produced by Rudd and the long-legged Randi Osetek in a sequence that showed her in a new light. She had a kind of reserved menacing power that was almost frightening as she moved flawlessly through the strange entwining postures.

Severin-Hansen and Perez performed yet another dazzling duet, much of it in the air. Lilyan Vigo and Cyrille de la Barre had a long, intense dance that fascinated for several reasons. Much of it kept the dancers in profile to the audience, which was refreshing, and it had a lot to say about balance and interdependence. De la Barre may turn out to be an excellent partner for Vigo. There is still a feeling that they are testing each other, but they work well together when de la Barre is not hogging the spotlight, so to speak, as he did the previous week. Most interesting, however, was to see many of Weiss’s signature steps, which we had been used to seeing danced by Melissa Podcasy, interpreted in her own way by Vigo. No longer does she precisely copy Podcasy’s style: she has come into her own.

Important factors in the success of “Symposium” were the fine costumes by Jeff A.R. Jones and the excellent lighting and backdrops designed by Ross Kolman. They drew their inspiration from artworks by Kazimir Malevich, and the cool, early modern style added another element of complexity to the rich textures of the dance and music. “Symposium” is a meaty piece that will bear multiple viewings before it fully reveals itself.

Sandwiched as “Symposium” was on one side by the gay “Square Dance,” it was only fitting for the program to end with another happy dance. Both audience and dancers had just about as much fun as the law allows in public with “Who Cares?,” set to a series of George Gershwin tunes. Karl Moraski was swingin’ on piano, while John Simonetti on bass and drummer Vincent E. Moss kept the beat for the dancers. Like “Donizetti Variations,” “Who Cares?” is a series of dances, but it is perhaps a little more successful because here each dance is set to a different song in the same style, so both the breaks and the continuity are natural. And like “Square Dance,” “Who Cares?” is all about motion.

From the five men lined up like stair steps for “Bidin’ My Time” to Lara O’Brien and Wen Ni frolicking through “Do Do Do” to Randi Osetek (hot!) and Edgar Vardanian smoldering in “Lady Be Good” to Alessia Gelmetti and Pablo Javier Perez putting some backspin on “‘S Wonderful,” it was all good. The under-used Alain Molina swept several ladies off their feet, and he, Vigo, Severin-Hansen and Margot Martin (happily recovered from last week’s injury) had fabulous solos (legs way up). It all came to a glorious finale with the full company rollicking through “I Got Rhythm,” which they all surely do. My balletomane French guest was so overcome as to lose all her English, exclaiming again and again: ” C’est magnifique! C’est splendide! ” I’d just add, in the words of another immortal songwriter: “Darlin’, you were wonderful tonight.”

Updated 10/5/04:

Robert Weiss’ “Symposium” Further Considered

I was so amazed by the opening night of the Carolina Ballet’s second Balanchine program of the season that I went back the next night – mainly to see the Robert Weiss-choreographed “Symposium” again. What a work of art this dance is! Even with two viewings, I feel I’ve barely gotten the outlines of this complex piece.

On second viewing, a star-like structure in the dance revealed itself. The lines of thought and emotion cross in the central pas de deux by Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov, which, on October 1, stood out from the surrounding dances like a diamond among colored jewels and clarified the piece enormously.

Podcasy is able to project intense emotion with great power, and on that night she lit up the stage as we have come to expect. I had not felt much from her the previous night – she seemed turned inward and not quite on the same wavelength as Bourtasenkov. I had therefore admired only the intricate steps, the soaring lifts, and the impressive stage-sweeping turns of the choreography – but I had not quite grasped the pas de deux ‘s central role in the composition’s content.

“Symposium” is great choreography – thoughtful and beautiful, full of stunning images and emotive motion – and it places Weiss high among contemporary choreographers. If he has made a better dance, I have not been so fortunate as to see it. But, as with music, on the stage even great choreography can be only as good as its players at the moment of execution. On opening night, certain sections of the “orchestra” danced with more flash (Severin-Hansen and Perez), more dramatic tension (Vigo and de la Barre), or more physical bravura (Christopher Rudd) than Podcasy and Bourtasenkov; the interpretation was not quite balanced. Sometimes even the dominant scene or motif in a ballet can be overpowered by spectacular dancing in a lesser one.

One of the satisfactions of having a local ballet company lies in the possibility of seeing works often enough to make out their underlying forms and to study their nuances of meaning and the effects on both of the vagaries of individual performance. You have the luxury of studying the dance like a movie, a painting, a piece of recorded music. You can over time sense the invisible form – in the Platonic sense – that imbues the efforts of choreographer and dancers. It will be a privilege, even more than with most dances, to view “Symposium” whenever it reappears in the company’s repertory and as it evolves ever closer to Platonic perfection.

Symposium ” will be performed as part of the Carolina Ballet’s program on 10/8 at 8 p.m. and 10/9 at 2 p.m., in Fletcher Opera Theater.