The Carolina Ballet completed its 2003-4 season with a crowd-pleasing program May 13-16 in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. On the 13th, the audience was so enthusiastic that conductor Alfred Sturgis frequently had to pause the flow of music to allow the applause to recede. Yes, the North Carolina Symphony was back, and it was clear that I was not the only ballet audience member who had missed their playing: Sturgis and the musicians received a warm welcome before a note was sounded.

The evening opened with a Robert Weiss-choreographed piece set to Handel’s Water Music , as arranged for orchestra by Hamilton Harty. The principal dancers were Margaret Severin-Hansen, Margot Martin, Alain Molina, Edgar Vardanian, and Atilla Bongar, all of whom were in good form, most particularly Severin-Hansen. Her dancing during the piece’s slow moment was breathtaking. It was like watching a talented artist draw elegant lines with disappearing ink – an artist who demands ideal spatial relationships. She seemed surprised by the rapturous ovation she received at the end of the section, then buoyed to even more sparkling movements.

Unfortunately – and unusual in a work by Weiss – the spatial relationships in the sections including the numerous corps de ballet were not so perfect. Instead of bringing to mind such watery terms as flowing, frothing, or bubbling, the many dancers often seemed crowded and the stage, cluttered. Still, there were lovely passages, and when the mellow brass soared out, there were some fine fountain-like images.

Added to the program on the 13th was an unexpected treat. Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov danced choreography by Peter Martins to Sibelius’s “Valse Triste.” The depth of emotion those two dancers can project! It seemed to affect the conductor: as the piece went on, he pulled up the mournful timbre and darker tones in the music, as if to match the sorrows of the dance. It was deeply moving.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not meant to be deeply moving. It is meant to entertain, and that it did, very well. Shakespeare’s familiar story was set to Felix Mendelssohn’s equally familiar music by George Balanchine in 1962; this version was staged by Sandra Jennings of The George Balanchine Trust, with fantastic sets and costumes by Pablo Nuñez from Ballet Santiago de Chile. Balanchine’s choreography was elided, with this production including only the first act and the tail end of the second, skipping the wedding scene and several related dances.

The entire company seemed to enjoy itself throughout, a critical thing for the success of any version of the Dream . The lovely Lilyan Vigo danced Titania very gracefully, but she was nearly overmatched by Gabor Kapin as Oberon. Over this season Kapin has become more and more brilliant in his movements, and, all in white, he glowed as Oberon. That he had the best choreography to work with certainly helped, but it was his skill that brought the beauty to the sharp steps and flashing arcs.

Christopher Rudd in a skimpy outfit pretty well stole the show as Puck. One of the challenges of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is bringing freshness to the well-known roles, and he excelled at this. His Puck was robust and funny, confused and mischievous, in just the right mix. And the things that he can do! Rudd is well known for his leaps and turns, but in this production he performed some miraculous mid-air movements.

Lindsay Purrington, Margot Martin, Dameon Nagel, and Alain Molina were fine as the bewitched lovers. Myrna Kamara was perhaps typecast as the Queen of the Amazons, but who cares, when she does it so well. Likewise with Edgar Vardanian as the Duke Theseus. However, Bottom as danced by Maximilien Baud was a little disappointing. The role seemed underemphasized in the choreography and underplayed by the dancer. I had expected to see Mikhail Nikitine in the role, but he danced Titania’s Cavalier, a small part. They might better have switched.

All the lesser roles were danced well, but special mention must go to the two dozen children who danced the fireflies and ladybugs of Oberon’s kingdom, and to Titania’s page, Chandler Proctor. They were all wonderful.

Perhaps the most pleasing thing about this production was seeing that the Carolina Ballet has come so far in combining dancing with mime and dramatic expression. Here, in contrast to some of the story ballets of a few years ago, the dancing was never interrupted for the insertion of some stage business – all the stage business was incorporated into the dancing, enriching the storytelling aspect. The stories are good and fine, but the dancing is the reason we go to the ballet.