A pair of dancers

Marcelo Martinez and Jan Burkhard – photo by Chris Walt

If you’ve ever pleaded for Carolina Ballet to begin taking risks with their guest choreographers and choices of music, then this is the program of your bluest, most dazzling dreams. A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater hosted audiences for an evening of George Gershwin classics with a take on both modern and traditional jazz themes and characters. “Rhapsody In Blue” opens the company’s 2024 spring season, with more character-filled ballets to come.

Do you remember your first trip to Paris, France? Three words to describe mine were playful, traditional, and overwhelming (in the best way possible!). I was only 14 years old, but the magic of my first pain au chocolat still warms the back of my tongue 20 years later. This warm feeling of nostalgia with hints of new excitement carried through me as I watched Amy Hall Garner‘s piece An American In Paris. Although the ballet did not follow the storyline of the beloved 1951 musical film, it gave the same overall feeling, taking audience members to the streets of Paris.

Performed by Principals Margaret Severin-Hansen and Richard Krusch and company members Ayla O’Day, Sofia Rose Peetoom, Deirdre Scanlon, Elye Bailey, Jayson Pescasio, Luke Potgieter, Robert Champ, Andrew Denise, Emily Farrow, Pierson Hall, Maggie-Kate Howard, Juliet Marinello, Talia Maszer, and Ella Volpe. (Note: each night has a different casting). The female costumes, white long-sleeved with blue accents, perfectly complemented the male costumes, white short-sleeved with red accents, with the principal dancers adorned in both colors. The choice of costume, designed by Shomaree M. Potter, was a clear nod to both the French and American flags and executed with a flair of innocence perfect for the naive first-time American tourist.

Staged to George Gershwin’s An American In Paris, the choreography was equal parts challenging and lightweight. Stunning lifts and turns with flexed feet dominated the stage. The occasional jazz hand brought us back to musical theater land with a glorious suspended grande rond de jambe reminding us that this was still a ballet. To no surprise, Severin-Hansen and Krusch stole the show with their duet moments, trusting each other to complete six pirouettes and jumps landing on shoulders and hips.

The clearest standout was Pierson Hall, a member of the corps de ballet. Hall embodied exactly what it meant to be a French boy swooning over an American girl – sensual and giddy winks. A beautiful dancer with stunning limbs and powerful, yet graceful torques, Hall will be one to watch move up the ranks during the 2024-2025 season.

Probably the most anticipated program of the night, Gershwin Shorts, gave regular Carolina Ballet attendees a run for their money, with the dancers risking it all on stage. The playful tones of the first program carried into the second program with bright colors and over-the-top character expressions.

Performed by Principals Jan Burkhard, Richard Krusch, Marcelo Martinez, Jayson Pescasio, Alyssa Pilger, and Margaret Severin-Hansen, along with Soloist Braden Hart and Corps De Ballet member Laurel Dorn. Each costume was centered around a particular color – purple, green, blue, gray, red, and orange that morphed into dresses or accessories from a simple leotard and black biker shorts.

Staged to seven different pieces of Gershwin’s music, choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett told seven different stories that set the tone of a particular mood – innocence, longing, love, guilt, and entertainment. The vignettes opened with Burkhard discovering a ballet tutu for the first time, moving to “Etude 1.” Audience members see her staggering around stage learning to dance and control her feet on pointe. We then see Hart emerge to “The Man I Love,” dancing with a suited-up mannequin. The choreography here was not complicated nor never seen before, but it helped the story progress with a goofy undertone. It was also nice to see a non-heterosexual storyline on stage in a dance genre that is historically based in heterosexual relationships.

The third vignette was my personal favorite, offering a complex story of longing and love performed by Pilger and Martinez. Pilger embodied a lonely librarian and Martinez embodied a nerdy student running around the library trying to check out the perfect book. As Pilger’s character flipped through the pages of her fantasy novels, she met a tennis player and a salsa dancer (performed by Martinez), attempting to fall in love with them, but never meeting that mark. By the end of the performance, Martinez’s nerdy student returns to the stage and presents the librarian with a sunflower. The two fall in love, dancing a sweet duet filled with harmony, and the lights go down on a kiss.

The fourth vignette brought back Severin-Hansen and Krusch for a darker, yet equally powerful, duet about grief. Staged to “Etude 2,” and although it’s not outwardly so obvious, audience members saw a story of two lovers, presumably a couple, who were once deep in love but are now barely speaking and grieving that romantic loss. The short dance was heartbreakingly beautiful, so much so that it was hard to look away.

A surprising pleasure was brought in the fifth vignette performed by Dorn and Pescasio. The two embodied two goofy magicians, with Dorn at the lead. They showed off some tapping skills and jazzed up the night with loud laughs from the audience.

The standout was Laurel Dorn, who held her own amazingly up against the company’s strongest principal dancers, and Alyssa Pilger who was the strongest storyteller out of all eight dancers with her lovable librarian character.

It’s debatable whether or not Taylor-Corbett’s risks paid off, though I certainly think they did. Robert “Ricky” Weiss founded the ballet company on the ideals of both modern and traditional stories but has always had a pull for concepts that have never been explored on a ballet stage before. Following this lead, Artistic Director Zalman Raffael‘s acceptance of Taylor-Corbett’s work can only be seen as a continued step in the right direction.

Giving title to the company’s February program, “Rhapsody In Blue,” remains one of Raffael’s original works, first premiered for Raleigh audiences in 2013. I was lucky enough to see the premiere and it quickly became one of my favorite original works the company has ever done. Needless to say, my expectations for the “revival” were high.

Not many people are familiar with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, other than its last few minutes that close the piece. The score is only about 16 minutes long, but carries audiences through an up-tempo piano-filled story of young sultry jazz. The choreography was equally jazzy, and nostalgic to the 2013 premiere, but also glittered with an air of modern blues.

Performed by Principals Taylor Ayotte, Amanda Gerhardt, Marcelo Martinez, Courtney Schenberger, Soloist Braden Hart and Corps De Ballet members Saskia de Muinck Keizer, Heather Duncan, Emily Fretz, Elye Bailey, Robert Champ, Andrew Denise, Pierson Hall, Anthony Hoyos, Garrett Wooten, Jilian Kossak, SarahAnne Perel and apprentice Esmelyn Hair. Each dancer was adorned in different shades of blue, coupled with silver rhinestones on the bodice. The opportunity for stunning costume design was endless, and the choices fell flat. The women wore a light shade of blue that was expected to be seen, but had a large sparkly indigo-shaded puff sleeve that continually distracted me from the dancing and the music. The standout was Taylor Ayotte, who completely embodied sultry blues with her facial expressions.

An evening of musical theater embodied by classical ballet dancers is what Carolina Ballet is proving to do best. Every time I step foot into the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, seated for another Carolina Ballet performance, I get giddy with excitement knowing an evening of dazzling embodied exploration awaits me. The two guest programs surely did not disappoint me, and I had higher expectations for “Rhapsody In Blue” that were not met, due to distracting and idle costume choices.

“Rhapsody In Blue” continues through Sunday, February 18. For more details on this production, please follow this link.