The Carolina Ballet opened a beautifully balanced new program on Thursday, February 16, in A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater with dances inspired by two of Shakespeare’s plays and several of his love sonnets. Shakespeare Suite includes a new work for the company by guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett; an old work by modern dance master José Limón restaged for the ballet; and a new work by Carolina Ballet Artistic Director Robert Weiss set to marvelous recent music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec. This highly-recommended program runs through March 5 (see our calendar for details).

The evening began with Taylor-Corbett’s “Love Speaks,” in which she uses an on-stage actor, Jeffrey West, to recite snippets and excerpts from various Shakespeare writings on love. This is the least successful aspect of a work replete with beautiful dances, danced beautifully. West’s delivery was OK, not thrilling — but then with the texts so chopped and mixed, he was working with little more than sound-bites, so what can you expect? And he couldn’t always compete successfully with the lively musics of Vivaldi, Corelli, Purcell, and Nicholas le Strange, which sometimes surpassed him in volume and pacing. And West didn’t have enough to do onstage: I wondered how it might be if he were dancing, himself.

But the big issue for me — and not just in this particular piece, but always when spoken word is added to the dance — is that the dancing distracts me from really hearing the poetry, and the spoken words distract from the dancing. They use different parts of the brain, and one of the great things about dance is that it allows you to turn off that yapping verbal part in favor of the part that does music, images, and motion. So I have to wonder if the piece would have been even better than it was if the words were left unspoken and the meaning of the verses was danced — as in fact, they were.

Taylor-Corbett has a talent for lacing together vignettes so that the components build a satisfying whole, and she demonstrates that talent again with the pieces of “Love Speaks,” in which she knits together not only the different poems but also music, by different composers. And having worked with the Carolina Ballet over a number of years, she knows the dancers’ personalities and choreographs to their strengths. But because she doesn’t work with them all the time, she sees them a little differently from Weiss, and she makes some choices (of leads, or partners) that show us the dancers in different lights, too. David Heuvel’s lovely costumes in a riot of pretty flower colors add to the fresh effect whether all ten dancers are on-stage or just a single pair.

Lilyan Vigo and Timour Bourtasenkov we’ve seen together before, of course, and they are an exquisite pair in coral pink. Their dance near the end of “Love Speaks” was as beautiful and as sweet as fondant icing on a betrothal cake. But we’d not seen Heather Eberhardt’s sass offset by Dameon Nagel’s natural dignity, nor had we seen see Alain Molina cut loose with the daring Lara O’Brien. Molina treats Lilyan Vigo, with whom he is sometimes partnered, with such delicacy that it was enlightening to see him act with greater firmness. I’ve often thought that Wei Ni’s comic abilities were underutilized, probably because his humor is so dry — but the ebullient Margot Martin draws him out here. The real surprise of the pairings, though, was that of Caitlin Mundth with Attila Bongar. They were splendid together, visually and kinetically, and they lit up the stage with their joyous dancing.

Following this pleasure fest was something much darker: José Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavanne,” which premiered at the American Dance Festival in 1949. Deriving its form from Renaissance dances and its power from the psychological and emotional verities of Shakespeare’s Othello, this rather formal work for a quartet of dancers, set to music by Henry Purcell, has been in the repertories of both modern and ballet companies for more than 50 years. It was a signature work for the José Limón Company and subsequently the Limón Company, and for Limón himself and later for company principal dancer Clay Taliaferro — who is now professor of dance at Duke and who staged this version for the Carolina Ballet.

In the Carolina Ballet version performed on the 16th, the Moor was danced by Timour Bourtasenkov; his wife (the Desdemona character), by Melissa Podcasy; his “friend” (the Iago character), by Cyrille de la Barre; and his wife, by Margot Martin. Love, envy, suspicion, and murder are the bones of the story and the dance, but sadly this quartet didn’t seem quite ready for their full expression as driving passions, and at times the action descended into melodrama. Another drag on the production was the costumes (from the Pennsylvania Ballet) that appeared to have been made for larger persons. Bourtasenkov, in particular, was swallowed up by his robe, and many of his gestures and extensions were lost in its folds. Still, “The Moor’s Pavanne” is a great dance, and this was a worthy effort, if not a great success.

The evening’s final work, however, was a great success. “Tempest Fantasy,” a new piece by Robert Weiss set to Paul Moravec’s music of the same title — which was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest — has some brilliant aspects and overall is very strong. Moravec’s score for piano trio and clarinet is rich with action and emotion, texture and color, with wonderful themes for several of the characters, especially Ariel and Caliban.*

Weiss and Cyrille de la Barre between them have created a tremendous Caliban. The range of interpretation possible for this character is very wide, and Weiss has gravitated to the line between unmannered savage and cunning evil for his Caliban. De la Barre, who is sometimes rather stiff in his delivery, completely shed his veneer of cultivation in favor of a plastic, pliable, python-like coil and spring. He is so powerful and so believable in this role that when he attacks Miranda (Lilyan Vigo), the viewer is really frightened for her momentarily. Wonderful dancing. Vigo was lovely as Miranda, if a trifle delicate for an island girl, and Alain Molina was pleasing as her Ferdinand, exhibiting warmth, amazement, and the ability to seize an opportunity.

But the stage belonged, as it so often does, to Ariel, the airy spirit who guides the action of the bewildered humans. Weiss made a brilliant choice to make Ariel two-in-one and to emphasize the androgeny of the spirit. On the 16th he/she was danced simultaneously by Pablo Javier Perez and Margaret Severin-Hansen, who were dazzling. They usually are, but this was above and beyond. Aided by David Heuvel’s gorgeous, fluttering costuming, which shimmered in Ross Kolman’s attentive lighting, Javier Perez and Severin-Hansen really appeared to fly. Had there been nothing else in the “Tempest Fantasy” but their dances, one would have gone away happy. As it was, we left surfeited with delight.

*”Tempest Fantasy” was performed in Raleigh in its chamber-music incarnation in November 2004, by Antares.