Carolina Ballet opened its 25th season with a varied and refreshing program at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium on Thursday evening. To this viewer, the company looks almost entirely new, having not attended since the beginning of COVID – but, wow! We are so fortunate to have this top flight company here in the Triangle.

The opener, Suite 44 by resident choreographer Amy Hall Garner, began with the youthful and joyous “Mountain Dance” by Dave Grusin. There was an outstanding solo moment by Bilal Shakur Smith who’s timing was impeccable. This was followed by Grusin’s funky piano version of “Memphis Stomp” – a thrilling pas de deux between Ayla O’Day and Braden Hart in which both their dancing and their expression of personality were contagious. The Suite ends with “Xam-Xam” by Kora Jazz Trio. The simple costuming by Terry Baker and lighting by Ross Kolman did just enough to allow the dancers to shine. Garner’s choreography is sophistocated and informed. I particularly loved how her nuanced expression of the rhythmic nature of this music came off as fluid rather than angular. I also loved Garner’s treatment of the kora solo emphasized by the women dancers. Fantastic all the way around.

One of the long-standing perks of attending Carolina Ballet performances is that the company attempts to use live musicians whenever possible, raising the level of artistry for both for dancers and audience. This use of live musicians is practically unheard of anymore with live dance, so we do not take it for granted and are enormously grateful to the Carolina Ballet for continuing this effort.

Lead by music director Al Sturgis, the pit filled with an orchestra of the Triangle’s finest instrumentalists for the second work on the bill – “Endymion’s Sleep” – based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This collaboration between choreographer and founding artistic director, Robert Weiss and North Carolina composer J. Mark Scearce is breathtaking and cathartic. Weiss characterized the piece as a “sustained sigh of grief lasting 8 minutes.” The pas de deux between Alyssa Pilger and Kiefer Curtis was intense with palpable emotion.

Book of Contradictions choregraphed by Carolina Ballet artistic director/CEO Zalman Raffael, was set to the Piano Concerto No. 2 in A by Franz Liszt featuring the outstanding chamber orchestra with concert pianist Wolf Wolfram. (Wolfram is no stranger to North Carolina having performed at Eastern Music Festival for many years!) A single movement divided into six sections, Raffael’s ripe interpretation gave the dancers ample opportunity to express the multitude of emotions in the work. Of particular beauty were moments that featured the ever-transcendent Margaret Severin-Hansen – ethereal, effortless and passionate.

The final and most scrumptious work was left for last: The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody) A Charade in One Act by Jerome Robbins with music by Frédéric Chopin. Utterly charming and fully enthralling, this piece is “a setting of an all-Chopin recital where attendees [the dancers] allow their decidedly imaginative minds to wander” (Robbins). Wolfram played the recitalist on stage as the dancers played the audience. The company of dancers were hilarious and brilliant as was Wolfram who did not waste his moment to ham it up as well.

Kudos to Raffael for the thoroughly enjoyable programming. Don’t miss your chance to see this performance if you can, folks. With superlative dancers, outstanding choreography, world class musicians – how can you pass it up? The rest of the 22-23 season looks just as exciting. Bravi tutti, Carolina Ballet.