From the Fletcher Opera Theatre stage on the evening of September 26, Carolina Ballet’s Artistic Director and choreographer Robert Weiss announced to a substantial if not full house the sponsors (Progress Energy for the season, The News and Observer for this Carmen run, and Waste Management for this performance) and acknowledged the presence in the audience of first lady Mary Easley. The occasion marked the opening performance of Carolina Ballet’s fifth anniversary year. The company seems now to be a fixture in the area and a most welcome one that we hope will be permanent.

The 23-member pick-up orchestra under the baton of Alfred Sturgis then struck up the familiar notes of the Prelude to the Bizet opera. We are so accustomed to hearing this music played by larger ensembles that at first it seemed thin to our ears, but we gradually became more accustomed to these reduced but no less impressive forces, and the more intimate feel ultimately seemed more pleasing, and more appropriate, for this rendering of the equally familiar story. The score is a special arrangement and re-orchestration of Bizet’s music, along with Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy , by Glenn Mehrback of Durham, who wrote some original music for it as well. The audience clapped at the conclusion of the overture, and at numerous occasions after danced numbers as well, but Sturgis did his best to keep things moving along in spite of these interruptions to the flow. Alexander Simionescu (husband of Pamela Frank) did some fine solo violin work in the Sarasate music. There was an intermission after each act.

The curtain went up to reveal an attractive backdrop of mountains (with peaks too rugged for the Pyrénées that separate France and Spain, unfortunately) that was a typical example of all of Jan Chambers’ sets, realistically suggestive of the sites but in pleasingly subdued tones suggesting age. Costumes by Deborah Newhall and Jeff A. R. Jones (principals) were also lovely, colorful without being too bright or gaudy, and suggestive of the occupations of their wearers.

The choreography throughout the evening was creative. Movements and gestures were attractive, well coordinated, and expressive. The fight scene between Don José and Captain Zuniga and the sensuous and suggestive tent-scene danse by Carmen and Don José spring to mind as outstanding examples. Movements were frequently also productive, for the dancers themselves shifted elements of the scenery and props on, off, and around the stage, all in a smooth, natural fashion. Nothing was extraneous. Certain large-scale dance numbers were particularly impressive, including the soldiers at the changing of the guard, the tavern dance, and the pre-bullfight dance, the only one where the costumes were appropriately bright and glittering. The smuggling scene was also especially creatively realized in every way, from the sparkling dance of the guards and gypsy women who create the distraction while the men with their packages, chests and trunks of contraband weave through the portions of the set representing the mountain pass down to the clever design of the set itself.

The dancers also needed to be good actors, since the details of the story had to be told with gestures and facial expressions. In Fletcher, facial expressions count, for they are easy to see from the vast majority of the seats without need for opera glasses; for this reason, it is a very good venue for ballet. This aspect, too, was quite well realized. A few elements of humor were injected into the show: for example, Don José pulled out empty pockets to demonstrate his poverty; Captain Zuniga signed the prison release order on the back of a guard bent at the waist, using a quill that the latter extracted from an inside coat pocket; and some teasing gestures from the women, gestures generally absent from operatic productions of the story, were introduced.

Carmen was danced by Melissa Podcasy (Weiss’ wife), Don José by Timour Bourtasenkov, Escamillo by Isanusi Garcia, Micaëla by Lilyan Vigo. Hong Yong substituted for the scheduled Frances Katzen as Frasquita, and was a delight to watch in her work with Heather Eberhardt as Mercédès. Alain Molina was Dancaïre, leader of the smugglers. The audience seemed most impressed with Garcia’s spectacular leaps and mid-air spins, but this reviewer found Bourtasenkov’s dancing smoother, more graceful, and more continuously sustained throughout the evening. His face and gestures were also much more expressive. We have become so accustomed to Podcasy’s grace that we no longer find it remarkable; we simply expect her dancing to be exquisite, and we were not disappointed. Vigo’s was also lovely, but she doesn’t appear very often nor have a great deal of variety in her movements when she does.

The company has made a terrific mark on our region in four years. The level and quality of its dancing is on the whole outstanding. Its international and multi-cultural nature is especially striking; of the seven above-mentioned principals, four are not American – Bourtasenkov is Moldavian, Garcia and Molina are Cuban, and Yong, Chinese – and, in addition, Albania, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Uruguay, Jamaica, and Canada are represented in the troupe. One expects this in New York, but not in Raleigh. Indeed, this composition was the cause of the near-absence of some of the cast in a recent delayed-visa scenario chronicled in the press. Yet there are also two Raleigh natives amongst its members. The creativity of its artistic director is likewise impressive. His inventive adaptations of classic stories such as Carmen and works such as Handel’s Messiah to classical ballet steps, poses, and movements, along with some originating in modern dance, and his use of more complete modern, representational sets, props and costumes (instead of the ubiquitous tutus and tights in the indeterminate forest locales that are always conjured up when classical ballet is mentioned) is pleasingly original, and turn the dance into a dramatic representation without words, with a nod to mime here and there. All of these elements combined have attracted a faithful following and brought out sizable audiences for their productions – and thankfully, corporate support to help keep them afloat in these difficult economic times.

[ Note: Carmen runs through October 13. See our calendar for a link to the company to obtain specific dates and times. ]