Category Archives: Dance

Charlotte Ballet’s Flatter Slim-Fast Nutcracker Still Dazzles With Scenic Splendor and Scintillating Dance

Review : Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

When I first heard that Charlotte Ballet would be trotting out its newish Nutcracker down in Charleston before bringing it back to the Belk Theater for its customary two-week run, it struck me as a good thing – spreading the word to South Carolina at the gloriously revamped Gaillard Municipal Center. But I hadn’t considered how the economies of putting the show on the road might affect the product at home. Musicians from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra have been reduced this year from 60 to 35, according to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the Nutcracker choreographer and past Charlotte Ballet artistic director. Furthermore, the mini-chorus that always sang from the orchestra pit in the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” at the end of Act 1 is gone. At least one orchestra member I’ve heard from isn’t pleased by the various transpositions required when you ditch the bass clarinet and are no longer tripling the flutes.

This slimmed-down score comes on the heels of last year’s million-dollar redesign of sets and costumes, austerity following ballyhooed largesse. The new sets sparkle with bright colors at the Stahlbaums’ holiday party in Act 1 and in the Land of the Sweets after intermission. The snow scenes literally glitter in both acts – and the cute little Angels float on a bed of clouds created by nicely tamed fog machines. Yet there was a two-dimensional quality to many of the new props introduced last year that, er, fell flat for me. It began, amusingly enough, with a lifesize cardboard housemaid that was wheeled out to the Stahlbaums’ anteroom and collected all the guests’ hats, coats, and scarves before wheeling back to the wings. But the two-dimensional motif didn’t end there, for the toy soldier that Herr Drosselmeyer brings for Fritz, the creatures that file off into the wings when the clock strikes midnight, the reindeer that peep into the Land of Snow, and Mother Ginger’s house are all pancake flat.

All this flattening muted bustle of the holiday party, which was deprived of the formerly grand arrivals of the Toy Doll and the Toy Soldier in cabinets, caskets, or palanquins. Mark Diamond’s shtick as Herr Drosselmeyer was radically hamstrung, stripped of his former hocus-pocus emceeing for the gift reveals, and while his leave-taking compensates a little for his no-longer-baroque-and-fussy entrance, most of the physical comedy is either gone or has lost its patina. Even the wrench Drosselmeyer used to fix Clara’s broken nutcracker seemed a shadow of its former absurdity. Where the flatness meshes with the new scenic design by Alain Vaës, the result is notably spectacular when the Christmas tree chez Stahlbaum grows to fill the entire upstage. The enchantment doesn’t stop there, for new scenery emerges behind it. Most spectacular, exceeding even Clara’s departure from the Land of Snow (escorted by the victorious Nutcracker), is Clara’s landing in the Land of Sweets below the clouds where the cute little Angels glide.

Worse than the absence of the bass clarinet for the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (a bassoon doesn’t do) or the three flutes for the “Dance of the Reed Pipes” (barely noticeable) were the strings subbing for the mini-chorus. No matter how well they’re played, violins can’t say “Ah!” Under the baton of assistant conductor Christopher James Lees – and under the Belk stage – the Charlotte Symphony filled the hall rather nicely. With Sarah Lapointe and James Kopecky among the most elegant who have danced Sugar Plum and Cavalier, the climax of the grand “Pas de deux,” still sounded very powerful. But a subsequent listening session at home with a couple of reference recordings disclosed a shrieking piccolo that was probably missing from Tchaikovsky’s clangor at Belk Theater.

Charlotte Ballet’s dancers lifted the production high above any quibbles about props or orchestral instrumentation. The main corps and the satellite Charlotte Ballet II dancers maintained the high standard of past years while the work from apprentices, trainees, and students from the company’s academy and conservatory continues to ascend to new heights. Bonnefoux rehearsed the show in his first year away from the daily operations of the company, a great way for him to reconnect – and maybe a great burden lifted from anybody else who ventured to take on the complexities of Nutcracker casting. I was discreetly funneled into the Saturday evening performance so that I would be reviewing Cast A, the dancers who appear in all the publicity shots. An amazing 121 roles are double cast, so you can definitely say there is a Cast B. Yet there are also 21 roles that are triple cast, eight quadruples, and three – major roles – that rotate among five dancers. So on just one given night, over 150 splendid Holly Hynes costumes are in play backstage, and Bonnefoux is making sure that the cast du jour – no matter what the permutation – is in step. You can bet that he appreciates the expertise of Anita Pacylowski-Justo and Laszlo Berdo in staging and rehearsing all the student dancers.

It’s Clara and Fritz who must carry the action until Drosselmeyer dominates, so the Charlotte Ballet students aren’t merely background ornaments. Ava Gray Bobbit and Pierce Gallagher were the Stahlbaum sibs on opening night with Cast A, Gallagher one of two Fritzes and Bobbit one of four Claras. Though Gallagher absolutely reveled in Fritz’s energy and mischief making, Bobbit especially impressed me with her supple line, her perfectly calibrated childishness, and the utter ease and confidence she brought to every step. Only when Giselle MacDonald danced the Toy Doll did we ascend to the level of Charlotte Ballet II and when Maurice Mouzon Jr. followed as the Toy Soldier, we had our first brief sighting of the main company. Diamond has danced Drosselmeyer forever – yes, he gets a chunk of “Grandfather’s Dance” to strut his stuff – but he’s director of Charlotte Ballet II, not a company dancer. Even the rival rulers of the great Nutcracker war, Evan Ambrose as the Mouse King and Michael Manghini as the Nutcracker, were second-string members of Diamond’s company. Cast B digs even deeper, with company apprentices leading the Mice and the Nutcracker brigade into battle.

Obviously, Bonnefoux has bequeathed a very deep bench to Hope Muir, his successor as artistic director. Aside from the athleticism of Mouzon, the varsity never trod the early earthbound scenes of this resplendent Nutcracker. Only when Sarah Lapointe and James Kopecky greeted us – and the dreaming Clara – in the Land of Snow, were we finally favored with the grace of the top-tier dancers. Lapointe and Kopecky were one of four couples who will perform these rites. Each of them will rotate in some of the upcoming shows into the higher empyrean as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, welcoming Clara to the Land of Sweets. Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall took on these starring roles at the Saturday night opening, and Ball even surpassed herself. Her line and fearlessness now nearly match her peerless musicality. No less than five different couples get to excel in Tchaikovsky’s grand “Pas de deux” during the Nutcracker run.

The new Hynes costumes against the Vaës backdrops really do make the divertissements seem even more spectacular than before, showcasing the fine men in the company. Ryo Suzuki scintillated in his first year with the troupe, so his exploits now in third year fronting the “Gopak” weren’t revelatory. On the other hand, Juwan Alston brought amazing hangtime to his leaps in “Candy Cane,” even if he did teeter a bit on his final landing, and Humberto Ramazzina from Ballet II had an eye-popping precision in the “Chinese Tea.” Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Ben Ingel weren’t the most exotic purveyors of the Arabian “Coffee” duet that I’ve seen over the years, but they radiated sizzling sensual heat.

You almost wished that Charlotte Ballet could have trotted out an overhead camera or mirror when the last of the company’s great ballerinas, Sarah Hayes Harkins, made her decorous appearance as Rose at the center of the gorgeous “Waltz of the Flowers.” At the florid beginning and ending of the piece, Harkins was encircled by a dozen Flowers – petals, really, in Bonnefoux’s imagery – her height vis-à-vis the student dancers beautifully highlighted. Nothing less than the climactic “Pas de deux” could follow such pure, innocent beauty.

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Ballet’s Hope Muir Makes Some Noise in “Fall Works” Debut

Review: Charlotte Ballet Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

We didn’t have to wait long before realizing that Charlotte Ballet didn’t bring Hope Muir aboard as their new artistic director so that she would meekly follow in her predecessor’s footsteps. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux made a lasting impression on Charlotte’s dance scene during his 20 years at the helm, and the first program at Knight Theater after his retirement, Fall Works, paid a graceful tribute to him with George Balanchine’s Apollo, one of Bonnefoux’s most important roles during his years as principal dancer with New York’s City Ballet. Sandwiching that tribute, last staged here by Patricia McBride in 2010, were a pair of choreographers we will no doubt be seeing more of after this 2017-18 season opener, Johan Inger and Javier de Frutos. Our first taste of Inger, Walking Mad, didn’t disappoint, and the de Frutos finale, Elsa Canasta, was a foretaste of the excitement he’ll be bringing to the Knight next March, when his fairytale pop ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, gets its American premiere.

Due partly to technical difficulties, Inger wound up upstaging de Frutos on opening night. Walking Mad began with a quiet surprise as Ryo Suzuki, dressed in a simple coat and bowler hat, climbed onto the darkened stage from the orchestra pit, continuing to advance toward the rear until we became aware of a rather plain-looking wooden wall. Without any warning, the whole wall advanced, sweeping Suzuki downstage with all the finesse of a snowplow. Signs of life appeared comically at both ends of this wall, and our presumption that the wall was ordinary – or stationary – was soon demolished in the traffic of the dancers. Eight more of them would emerge. Doors appeared in the wall for entrances and exits, the wall separated and folded, and for another episode, lay flat on the stage like a palette. If that weren’t bizarre and sufficiently unpredictable, what we saw from the dancers and what we heard in the music compounded the surprises.

 

Boys streamed out in nerdy little party hats, followed by girls in the same pointy hats. Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” sprang up loudly, each new pass of the melody roughly marking the beginning of an unpredictable episode. Moods swung suddenly from party jubilation to trembling anxiety. Loose joyous limbs were succeeded by spasmodic tremblings of fear and anxiety, the 2001 choreography often resembling the Gaga dance idiom we’ve previously seen in Ohad Naharin’s work. Most affecting, perhaps, were the trepidations of Elizabeth Truell in her duets and trios, almost fetal in her withdrawal at times, throwing partners violently into the wall at others, and getting thrown in return. There were even moments when dancers were almost impossibly splayed on the wall. Suddenly, as the “Bolero” was growing wild, it seemed to stop as the wall went into yet another permutation, folding so that its two halves were perpendicular, Truell huddled in the corner. But the sound was only being muffled while she was in her agonizing isolation, returning to full blast as suddenly and unpredictably as the volume had dropped. The audience went wild as the Ravel concluded, but the spotlight on Suzuki signaled that Inger wasn’t done. Set to the somber “Für Alina” by Arvo Pärt, the choreographer added a coda, Suzuki making fumbling attempts to connect with Sarah Hayes Harkins before grabbing his coat, his hat, and fading upstage. The spare piano solo gently underscored the pathos.

After this dark and jagged piece, Balanchine’s Apollo was a very sunny contrast as Josh Hall portrayed the sun god. McBride, carrying on at Charlotte Ballet as associate artistic director after her husband’s retirement, had to be pleased with Hall’s equipoise and majesty, but there was also scintillating work from Apollo’s Three Muses. Drab as they had looked in

Walking Mad, Harkins as Polyhymnia and Chelsea Dumas as Calliope returned resplendently. Apollo handed out the appropriate props before the soloing began to Igor Stravinsky’s score, a plastic scroll to Calliope signifying poetry, a comedy mask for Polyhymnia signifying theatre and rhetoric, and a lyre to Terpsichore signifying music and dance – Alessandra Ball James making her first appearance of the season. Since he is often depicted with a lyre, Apollo inevitably chose Terpsichore for the climactic pas de deux after the second of his solos, and James certainly earned the honor. If Harkins is the most fearless and precise member of the troupe, I must say that James remains the most lyrical by virtue of her supreme fluidity. Just watch her arms and hands in this piece and you’ll see the essence of James’s musicality. After the Muses’ mini-festival of the arts, it’s always satisfying – and slightly surprising – to see the Muses teaming with Apollo to form a radiant sun in the last tableau.

Solo brilliance and individuality weren’t absent from Elsa Canasta, a piece built on familiar Cole Porter songs and a rarity among his works, “Within the Quota” – a ballet written for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, the same impresario and dance company that premiered Apollo in 1928. Diaghilev rejected Porter’s ballet even though the composer had just rescued him and his company when they skipped out of a swank Venice hotel without paying their bill. The de Frutos piece premiered in 2003 with Muir in the cast while she was still a member of the Rambert Dance Company in London, but it has undergone some intriguing evolution. Taking his cue from Ethel Merman’s rousing recording of Porter’s “Ridin’ High” (from Red, Hot and Blue), de Frutos originally had a female hostess at his party scene, his title a mash-up of famed hostess Elsa Maxwell and a bygone card-game fad that could have infused her parties.

Now the host is Levi Kreis, the charismatic singer and actor who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet. Here he’s in a jazzy Tin Pan Alley mode, a “sort of modern day Cole Porter,” according to the description that de Frutos sent Kreis. Needless to say, Ben Pope has had to transpose the keys of his original orchestration to accommodate Kreis, and he has added a prologue that didn’t exist in London. To make the new Charlotte Ballet presentation more of a singular event, Pope conducted his own score live for the first time, leading an ensemble that included a string quartet and an octet from Charlotte’s Jazz Arts Initiative.

Staging by Muir was less than ideal, for the varied percussion that might have blared forth in “Ridin’ High” when Kreis summoned bells, horns, and gongs was almost entirely interred in the orchestra pit. Worse still, Kreis was scandalously overmiked, garbling many of Porter’s familiar lyrics and rendering whatever he was saying in the Prologue unintelligible. Whether or not that malfunction threw the performance into disarray was hard to say. Kreis was listed as a participant in the instrumental “Within the Quota” segment, but he was gone after his wonderful interpretation of “So in Love” was compromised by sound problems. Nevertheless, with a passionate duet between Hall and Peter Mazurowki as Kreis sang, “So in Love” remained the most poignant episode in this piece, clearly depicting the anguish of forbidden love. Porter’s empathy and Kreis’s were particularly apt here, coming from gay artists.

Kreis’s absence during Porter’s ballet music, a stunning orchestration from Pope, may have been a last-minute change by Muir after programs had been printed. Or perhaps Kreis was backstage frantically trying to contact the soundbooth. Either way, something major needed to be fixed before the next performance. When Kreis returned, so did the glorious James, this time partnered by James Kopecky. Adding delicious dimensions of danger and difficulty to the choreography, set designer Jean-Marc Puissant spread a modernistic staircase across half of the Knight stage, moodily lit by Bruno Poet. Ensemble action and the duets played up and down this rising horizontal expanse, and I found myself holding my breath during several jumps and lifts.

Aside from the deafening mic, my biggest disappointment was Kreiss’s physical detachment during the ensemble segments. He needed to be closer, truly communicating with the dancers, and I regretted his absence during the ballet, which ran over eleven minutes in the piano version I obtained prior to the performance. And if he’s truly our host, Muir and de Frutos ought to consider having Cole Porter’s guests pay attention to him. I’m not sure anybody onstage favored Kreis with a single glance.

 

Bourne’s Stylish “Red Shoes” Misses the Train

Marcelo Gomes

Review: The Red Shoes

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Matthew Bourne decided to adapt The Red Shoes for the stage, he had to confront the fact that the unique film was about ballet but was itself neither a ballet nor a musical. Musicals are Bourne’s métier as a director, but nobody sang in the film except for an operatic soprano in the background for a moment or two. Taking the more obvious route and making a Red Shoes musical would mean putting himself – as a director and choreographer – in the service of largely new score with a leading lady who would have an exhausting load of singing and dancing.

THE RED SHOES

In practical terms, then, Bourne and his New Adventures company took a more prudent path, turning The Red Shoes into a full-length ballet. That meant scrapping all of the original dialogue from the Emeric Pressburger screenplay and filling out the scant instrumental score. If you’ve seen the film, you know that “The Red Shoes” is the ballet within the story that makes Victoria Page a star for the jealous impresario god of ballet, Boris Lermontov, and his world-renowned company.

When Victoria leaves Lermontov Ballet for the man who composed the “The Red Shoes” – because Boris has decreed that she must choose between the man she loves and the man who will make her a great artist – the impresario refuses to allow the composer, young Julian Craster, to take with him the work he wrote under contract. Boris also refuses to allow the ballet that made Victoria a star to be performed again unless she performs it.

THE RED SHOES

Shedding the dialogue doesn’t allow Bourne to communicate the niceties of the breakup between Victoria and Lermontov. Nor can he cut away to show us Julian afterwards when he’s about the premiere an opera at Covent Garden while Victoria has snuck off to Monte Carlo to return to Lermontov Ballet and “The Red Shoes.” My wife Sue, who hadn’t seen the film, couldn’t figure out where the train came from – or why – any better than I could before I reacquainted myself with the film.

Confronted with the scarcity of ballet music in the film, Bourne turned to the film music of prolific composer Bernard Herrmann and scores he wrote for Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Fahrenheit 451, avoiding his troves of Hitchcock scores. The result seemed very tepid to me in Act 1 as both Victoria and Julian strove to win Boris’s esteem. Nuances of Lermontov’s character, including his seeming indifference to artists he prizes just to make them work harder, were drained from Bourne’s scenario. And that charming episode in the film that inspired the climactic selection moment in A Chorus Line has also been axed.

THE RED SHOES

Lez Brotherston’s set and costume designs compensate for the early drabness of the music and the steamrolling of character contours, but they are ultimately a mixed blessing. The revolving proscenium that Brotherston has framing the action could become a thing in future theatre tech, smoothing transitions between scenes. It is especially effective – and cinematic – when Victoria and Julian are on the skids after breaking with Lermontov. She’s sitting on a bed at some flophouse, quietly bemoaning the career she threw away, while he’s in his posh bedroom lounging in a maroon smoking jacket, brooding over the marquee attraction he pushed away.

Really, it’s after the breakup that the drama and the music perk up, even if we veer towards melodrama. That smoking jacket is also the first strong echo of the film. We never see anything of the suave fedora Boris frequently wears onscreen nor the harlequin face painting that especially distinguishes Grischa, the ballet master who dangles the fatal red shoes. Costumes for Victoria and Julian are a triumph, notably in the blithe seaside scene that starts Act 2, but harlequin excess isn’t the brand of horror Brotherston goes for. When Grischa turns into a dancing Mephistopheles, Brotherston favors the Addams Family type of suit that a Dick Tracy villain might wear. Red pinstripes on midnight blue.

THE RED SHOES

Not all the abridgements of the film plot misfire, and some additions and substitutions make sense for a ballet conversion. My favorite substitution, though it belies Victoria’s aristocratic pedigree and her artistic prestige, is in the degradation she experiences in the sleazy show she hooks up with during her self-imposed exile. The lowbrow choreography that Bourne inserts here, augmented by some lascivious leering from Victoria’s co-workers, makes for a precipitous and affecting fall from grace. But you basically need to know what goes on in the film’s denouement to have a clue about Bourne’s botched staging of it. For no reason that I can fathom, he has both Julian and Boris running out on Victoria.

All of the major roles are at least double-cast, with four different dancers possible for the role of Irina, the ballerina Victoria replaces. Despite the fact that he isn’t allowed to appear even slightly artistic, I was most impressed by Sam Archer as Boris – partly because, for two-thirds of the evening, I thought he was transforming into the Mephisto tempter dangling the red shoes. No, that credit belonged to Leon Moran as Grischa, the ballet master, with a lightning-bolt streak of white through his hair when he turned sinister. Did I mention the Addams Family motif in the design? Or was that Young Frankenstein?

THE RED SHOES

The lovebirds, Ashley Shaw as Victoria and Dominic North as Julian on the night we went, were quite adorable. That says something for the depth of the Red Shoes company, since press night came a day after we attended. Complementing Brotherston’s stagecraft, projections by Duncan McLean were an airy atmospheric counterbalance to the mechanical artifice of the revolving proscenium. Although frequently deflected and derailed from telling its mutated Hans Christian Anderson fairytale in the fashion revered by balletomanes since 1948, Sir Matthew’s new adaptation is always a handsome one.

Levi, Hope and Pope Triple-Team Cole Porter

Charlotte Ballet_Javier de Frutos_ Elsa Canasta_ Singer Levi Kreis with cast_photo by Jeff Cravotta fix_1092-2585 (1)

Preview: Charlotte Ballet’s Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Over the past 20 years, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride have left an indelible mark on dance in Charlotte. Principal dancers when they worked together at New York City Ballet, the couple brought their invaluable experience with legendary choreographer George Balanchine to our own NC Dance Theatre, eventually re-branding the company as Charlotte Ballet.

When Knight Theater opened in 2009, their troupe became the resident company, and when Charlotte Ballet dedicated a stunning academy for dance at their new HQ on N. Tryon Street, their names were engraved on the building. Bonnefoux and McBride brought nationwide recognition to the Queen City with repeat performances by Charlotte Ballet at the Kennedy Center in DC, where McBride was decorated with Kennedy Center Honors at their 2014 gala.

Now that Bonnefoux has retired, Hope Muir is the new artistic director as Charlotte Ballet launches their 2017-18 season this week with Fall Works at the Knight, October 19-21 at 7:30, plus a 2pm matinee on October 21. If you look at the dance card, you’ll see Muir signaling her intentions loud and clear: honoring the past while venturing forth in bold new directions.

Bonnefoux and McBride will both be on the dancers’ minds as the company performs Balanchine’s seminal Apollo for the first time since 2010. Bonnefoux was one of the City Ballet principals that Balanchine chose to dance the title role, and McBride, still associate artistic director at Charlotte Ballet after her husband’s retirement, is staging it once again.

Apollo also makes sense because it’s referenced in Elsa Canasta by Javier de Frutos, the first major work that Muir is premiering in Charlotte. It’s personal for her. Muir was one of the dancers onstage in London with Rambert Dance Company when the piece was first performed in 2003. And when Elsa was recently restaged – in altered form – at Scottish Ballet in 2015, Muir was serving as assistant artistic director until Charlotte Ballet came calling.

There are new wrinkles for the Charlotte debut, too. Benjamin Pope has freshened his orchestrations, transposing keys and rearranging transitions, and for the first time, Pope will be conducting his own score live. Three Cole Porter songs are integral to the de Frutos scenario, “So In Love,” “Down In The Depths,” and “Ridin’ High.”

De Frutos had the Ethel Merman recording of “Ridin’ High” in mind when he conceived his choreography, so a female singer delivered the Porter songs at the London premiere. Not anymore. Levi Kreis will be the vocalist this time. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Kreis won the Tony Award in 2010 – as a sensational Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, replicating all The Killer’s piano pounding, stool kicking, mic straddling antics.

When he isn’t mimicking the iconic rocker, Kreis can do jazz.

Levi Kreis

“I personally love singing jazz,” Kreis says. “I thought it was a very exciting and bold move for Javier and the Charlotte Ballet to bring me forward for this part. There is no way for me to accurately express how fulfilling it is for me to wrap my voice around this material. I think most actors enjoy taking on roles that are outside the narrow box the industry tends to put us in.”

Kreis isn’t just coming to the Knight for a singing gig. There is acting for him to sink his teeth into as he interacts with the dancers. The lyrics Kreis sings are key elements of the scenario, and there is no mystery now about the role de Frutos is casting him in.

It’s the composer himself – Cole Porter. The back-story behind the choreography tells us how.

Back in the 1920s, when Porter would rent a villa in Venice, the Ballet Russes and its famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev were caught trying to skip out on their bill at a swank Venetian hotel. Jump out, actually, for they all rented ground-floor and second-floor rooms so they could jump out together on cue.

Didn’t work this time, and Porter bailed them all out – with one condition, that they give a private performance in the villa’s ballroom for their benefactor and select friends. Then the composer ventured further, thinking that this might be a chance to be taken seriously in the symphonic realm. He presented Diaghilev with a brand new ballet score, “Within the Quota,” groundbreaking because it fused classical music with jazz, and it was still four months before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue saw the light.

The Russian didn’t see it as an offer he couldn’t refuse. Here’s how de Frutos summed it up, writing to Kreis:

“And famously Diaghilev said, ‘Thank you! But I don’t like jazz!’ So, this is the back story of Elsa Canasta. The singer is sort of a modern day Cole Porter. Gifted in so many ways and musically a triple threat as a singer, songwriter and lyricist.”

As the title implies, evoking the canasta parties thrown by famed hostess Elsa Maxwell (who indeed lured Porter and other celebs to the Lido in Venice), de Frutos took an unexpected path in bringing his back-story to life. Switching from an Ethel Merman vocalist to a Cole Porter persona takes us emphatically back on course. Getting a Broadway star to take on the role has Muir enthused as she takes charge at Charlotte Ballet.

“Each new cast member brings with them a new focus to the narrative of the ballet,” Muir was saying last week. “Levi brings a freshness and new perspective that we are still negotiating in the rehearsal process. His input as a cast member is essential to the core of the piece.”

So is “Within the Quota,” of course. But the original orchestral score has remained elusive. De Frutos tells us that the jazz ballet was staged by a less prestigious company than Diaghilev’s, but only a piano score survived with few details on tempo. Pope was called upon to do the detective work – and for his arranging skills, since Rambert Dance needed a trim score that could play in London and on tour.

Pope tracked down the original manuscript a long way from Venice, in the archives at Yale University, Porter’s alma mater.

“I worked directly from printouts of the microfiche,” says Pope, recalling the thrill. “Porter wrote for piano, and if he needed more notes than could be comfortably written on one piano part, he’d add another! So some pages had three or four pianos, and the next page it would drop back to one piano, then to two, and so on. I was fascinated by his musical language, quasi-minimalist but way before its time, mixed with Gershwin-meets-Darius Milhaud.”

The current score, marked “Charlotte Ballet 2017” on the front page of the sheet music, will feature piano, string quartet, two woodwinds, three brass, and percussion. Those woodwind players need to be fluent on three instruments apiece, and the percussionist needs to play at least two different pairs of instruments simultaneously at different points. The Merman recording of “Ridin’ High” – or just the Porter lyric – hints at what we’ll be hearing. And when.

Pope is obviously excited about conducting his score for the first time, but other firsts factor in – collaborating with the musicians of the Charlotte-based Jazz Arts Initiative, and interacting with the dancers. Each live performance is unique, after all, so the dancers will feel the music slightly differently each time they perform.

But for the orchestrator who has undoubtedly seen this dance, it’s the drama – and what Kreis brings to it – that will be most revelatory.

“Each singer has brought something of themselves to the production,” says Pope.  “The role, though, has grown in dramatic importance, and Javier always wanted it to be more integral to the drama, rather than just someone singing songs on stage while dancers dance. Levi’s voice, and his acting and physicality will bring a totally different perspective to this piece.   Charlotte really does have its own Elsa Canasta.”

Calouche and Crossroads Take Flight Outdoors

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Preview: Crossroads Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

A new dance festival is leaping into the QC, touching down at First Ward Park for the Labor Day weekend, September 1-3. Pretty interesting idea, right? But the new Crossroads Festival isn’t merely an outdoor dance festival. It’s free, it features aerial dance classes and performances, and the main event starts just after sundown.

Now that’s pretty wild.

Caroline Calouche has been the queen of aerial dance in Charlotte for more than a decade. Her usual haunts have been Booth Playhouse; where Caroline Calouche & Co. offers its annual Clara’s Trip, an aerial Nutcracker; and Spirit Square, where she organizes a festival in early spring.

So what lured Calouche to the great outdoors?

“I was inspired by many great outdoor shows like Boston’s Shakespeare in the Park and Montreal’s Annual Circus Festival,” Calouche says. “Creating an outdoor show for the Charlotte community that reflects who we are has been a dream of mine for quite some time. Thankfully, the Knight Foundation helped make this dream come true.”

Though there are precedents in San Francisco, Boulder, and Victoria, bringing aerial dance outdoors – along with the Cirque du Soleil flavorings Calouche sprinkles into her choreography – is a fairly unique undertaking. Even Cirque doesn’t go all the way, opting for a bigtop on its famous tours.

“I did look into a circus tent so we can have the show rain or shine, but – whew! – that was crazy expensive!” Calouche confides. “Plus I would like the performance to take place under the stars with Uptown Charlotte as the backdrop to connect more to the location.”

Connecting with Charlotte was clearly a major factor in Calouche & Co.’s winning support from the Knight Foundation. Buy-in from Charlotte Center City Partners was also key before moving on to Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation to secure the festival’s location. Calouche’s Crossroads concept digs deep into Charlotte’s historical DNA.

Long before Charlotte became the crossroads for America’s most corrupt megabanks, it was a crossroads of commerce. If the Cherokee or Chippewa had named our city instead of the British, that name would likely mean crossroads. While the Uptown’s main crossroad is on Trade Street, Calouche’s event and choreography will remind us how Charlotte has also evolved into a crossroads for culture as well.

Each of the festival’s three days will begin with a potpourri of free dance and fitness classes. You can browse the online schedule and choose from hour-long sessions in samba, salsa, tap, hip-hop, capoeira, or aerial silks. Fitness freaks can contort themselves into the yoga and Pilates they truly deserve.

At 6pm, the pre-shows begin, also with various lineups of performers each evening. Constants in the lineup will be the MILA Dance Team, Mrudani School of Performing Arts, and the CC&Co. Youth Ensemble. If you’re itching for the NC Brazilian Arts Project, No Limits Dance Company, Hope of Israel, Maha’s Dances of IndiaHope of Israel, MufukaWorks Dance Company, or the Jazz Arts Initiative TrioMufukaWorks Dance Company,, consult the same handy webpage to see who’s up Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

All of those evenings will conclude with Crossroads, starting at 8pm. Yes, it’s also free, and Calouche promises that there will be no letup in variety when she and her company take to the air. On the contrary:

“The show includes contemporary dance, breakdancing, tap, zapeando, shag, capoeira, aerial silks, trapeze, bungee, partner acrobatics, aerial rope, Cyr wheel, and aerial hoop,” Calouche reveals. “My artistic idea is to either cross history with dance and/or circus arts or cross cultural dances that are represented in Charlotte’s community today. Crossroads is designed as an event for unity and the opportunity for people to learn about Charlotte’s history and culture.”

Guest unifiers will include artists from an exciting mix of disciplines, including actress Iesha Hoffman, percussionist Tim Scott, and slam poet extraordinaire Boris “Bluz” Rogers. Hoffman will narrate, knitting the various segments together and maybe providing cover during aerial apparatus changes.

Scott will be featured during the segment where tap meets zapeando dance and during what promises to be a wild breakdance battle on aerial rope. Rogers takes Calouche’s unifying fantasia to a whole new dimension with an original poem inspired by a great unifier, Thaddeus Tate. During Rogers’ spot, he’ll connect with the entire Crossroads cast on the floor.

Tate was an African American leader in Charlotte from the 1880’s to the 1940’s. Instrumental in establishing a library branch, an insurance company, and the Grace A.M.E. Zion Church – while rubbing elbows with the Uptown elite as owner of the Uptown Barber Shop – Tate is particularly pertinent because he resided on the block that is now First Ward Park. So Rogers’ tribute will definitely strike home.

With its unifying and educational components, Calouche tells us to expect a casual atmosphere rather than a carnival one, more like Symphony in the Park or Shakespeare on the Green than Speedweeks. There definitely will be food trucks, and D9 Brewery will be on the scene to help keep beer bellies properly bloated.

Like Clara’s Trip, which tends to shuffle its Nutcracker mix from year to year, Calouche expects to vary the content of Crossroads each time the festival rolls around. It’s not just a title – it’s a theme.Dominique jump color Michael Church

“Crossroads is the name of the event, and the theme will remain the same,” Calouche explains. “There might be some scenes that stay the same, but there is still more research I can do and other collaborators I would love to work with.”

Aerial dance is difficult enough to stage indoors, requiring a fly loft (ordinarily used to drop scenery from above) that’s sturdy enough to suspend up to four dancers on a dangling apparatus. Don’t try this at home. Or at Theatre Charlotte or Pease Auditorium.

So how exactly do you stage aerial dance outdoors? It sounds like CC&Co. will borrow from the big top concept and strip away the canvas.

“JHE is our production company who is building our stage, trussing, audio and lights,” Calouche says. “The stage will two feet from the ground on the grass near the 7th Street side of the park with four legs of truss crossing in the center at 25 feet high. Essentially we are building a theater in the round outside.”

Visualize a one-ring circus where 20 dancers, circus artists, musicians, and poets will perform under the stars – if the weather holds. So what happens if it rains?

“We wait it out and start when it passes,” Calouche replies.

Come to think of it, when most of your dancing is up in the air, you really don’t have to worry as much when the dance floor gets slick.

“A Chorus Line” @ CP Remains as Fresh as Ever – in Spots

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Review:  A Chorus Line

By Perry Tannenbaum

Simple and realistic – while obeying the classic theatre unities of ancient Greece – Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, was the coolest Broadway musical around, keeping its cachet for years after it opened in 1975. Part of the “singular sensation” was that it dispensed with the fripperies of musical theatre and humanized the quixotic kids auditioning for a precious few slots in the dancing chorus of a new Broadway show.

With the director, Zach, stepping out into the audience as he fires interview questions at the 17 finalists for the eight slots, the “singular sensation” dissolves the make-believe world of musicals – if we’ll only believe that each finalist is speaking directly to us as he or she responds to Zach. A whole new generation immersed itself in Bennett’s choreography, Hamlisch’s music, and the book by James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante. Keeping step with Edward Kleban’s lyrics for the iconic “One” became a rite of passage.

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As the show sidles into Halton Theater for the first time, we can see the many spots in the simple fabric that are showing their wear in this briskly-paced CPCC Summer Theatre production directed by choreographer Tod A. Kubo. Much of the wear possibly comes from the success of Chorus Line. If the show didn’t exactly invent audition jitters and drama, it certainly helped open the floodgates for the more frequent depictions we see nowadays.

While simple candor may have been an edgy concept 40+ years ago, we can see easily enough that Kirkwood and Dante didn’t go overboard in their script. “I Can Do That,” “Sing,” and “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” all seem to fit comfortably into the twinkling heyday of Neil Simon, rather cutesy and glib for many who are plunging into the Glee world of today. The format simulates candor, but the content takes a while arriving at depth.CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_090

So despite the effervescence that Kubo infuses into this production with his direction and choreography, I found myself only lightly engaged until we had skated through most of the narratives about the dancers’ past. When we arrive at the present drama between Zach and his former love, Cassie – drama happening right before our eyes – even first-timers may experience that jolt reminding them how mundane an audition is compared to real conflict and drama.

Or maybe not: I’ve heard that American Idol and America’s Got Talent, glorified auditions both, are fairly popular.

While the three previous productions that I’ve seen during this century alone have eroded my susceptibility, I did find Tony Wright – the one performer who doesn’t sing – freshly compelling as Zach. Doubling as the production’s dance captain, Meredith Fox has more than enough dancing individuality as Cassie to match the arc of her character, and the embers of past flames spark as she and Zach struggle to arrive at some kind of romantic closure while she reboots her aspirations and career.

CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_135Paul, another role that doesn’t draw a solo vocal, is the other finalist who brings the action forcefully into the present – thanks to Tyler Dema’s affecting vulnerability as he uncovers the reasons why Paul finds it impossible to open up in front of his fellow dancers. Zach’s private huddle with Paul is another highlight in Wright’s performance as well. Eleni Demos, new this season to CP, deserves a shout-out as Diana. Answering Zach’s most disturbing question, she ably leads “What I Did for Love” – the enduring anthem of A Chorus Line.

So many newcomers play out their auditions on the Halton stage, an encouraging omen for the future. Even more heartening, the house was filled, up to and including the top row in the balcony. Best reminders of the stalwarts who have matriculated at CP Summer in previous seasons were Susannah Upchurch as the tone-deaf Kristine and Lexie Wolfe as the pint-sized Val, saddled with all those “tits and ass” refrains.

There were murmurs in my row that the fit of the iconic Chorus Line uniforms wasn’t as tack-sharp as it should be. Too bulky or wrinkly? Perhaps, but Barbi Van Schaick’s costumes certainly had sufficient dazzle teamed with Biff Edge’s scene design and Gary Sivak’s lighting. More concerning was the relapse in the Halton sound system. Levels never seemed to be right for long, too loud for the singing, too soft for the speaking, and often unclear for both. More equipment and more sound techs might have helped.

 

 

“Wuthering Heights” Dances Madly to the End of Love

Review: Wuthering Heights

By Perry Tannenbaum

In the epigraph to his new ballet, choreographer Sasha Janes spread out one of Emily Brontë’s most lurid quotes over a full page in the program booklet for Charlotte Ballet’s production of Wuthering Heights. Contemplating her love for the elegant Edgar Linton and the mysterious Heathcliff, Catherine Linton likens her love for Edgar to the leaves of a forest, decorous and mutable, while her love for Heathcliff resembles the rocks below – short on delight, but necessary and eternal.

“I am Heathcliff!” Catherine famously tells Nelly Dean, the narrator of the novel.

Janes was not merely going to tell the story of Wuthering Heights, he was signaling that he would be trying to replicate its towering emotions, manias, and passions.

Incredibly, he largely succeeds.

It helps, of course, that the technical team behind him get the atmospherics right, most notably the lighting and projection designs by Christopher Ash and the costumes by Jennifer Janes. The Janeses are obviously on the same page conceptually, for the costumes designed for Catherine and Heathcliff are folksy and flowing, while the Lintons and Earnshaws tend toward genteel formality, starchiness, and pastels. Choreography magnifies those contrasts, controlled and elegant at Catherine’s wedding to Edgar, wild and athletic in her youthful frolics with Heathcliff.

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As the plot thickens and the protagonists mature, the pas de deuxs between Catherine and Heathcliff become darker and more sensual – and the costumes more diaphanous and scanty. Even uncannier than his choreography, the rightness of Janes’s musical choices assures that you can hardly tear your attention away from the dancers until the overwhelming final scene.

With his dark curly hair and his robust, muscular torso, Josh Hall (alternating with Ben Ingel) was the perfect blend of savagery and beauty as Heathcliff on opening night. After the intermission interval, Hall carried off Heathcliff’s astounding transformation from unrefined rusticity to steely, seething gentility marvelously well, and his partnering in the unique final pas de deux was both powerful and heartbreaking.

Working opposite the power and virility of Hall, Chelsea Dumas very likely convinced a hefty chunk of the opening night crowd that Catherine was the role in Wuthering Heights. Hers were the moves that gave the pas de deuxs with Heathcliff their wildness. Hers were the anguish and madness when the transformed Heathcliff married her sister-in-law Isabella, avenging himself for her betrayal of their love. Through it all, she stands up for Heathcliff against her abusive brother Hindley and her jealous husband Edgar.

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Both Janes and Dumas seemed to grasp that Brontë thought of Catherine as a woman whose fierce spirit and vitality were too much for her frail frame – particularly when pregnancy and parturition were added to her stresses. In the novel, Catherine’s death is a halfway mark, where our attentions begin to shift to a new generation after a raging, grieving Heathcliff curses his beloved and calls upon her spirit to haunt him the rest of his days.

Following the lead of the 1939 film, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, Janes makes Catherine’s death his denouement. Yet cursing and conjuring aren’t things that ballet does well. So Janes elaborates brilliantly on Heathcliff’s graveside vigil: here Hall clawed at the still fresh mound of dirt over Catherine’s body and actually pulled Dumas out of her grave. Then he danced a pas de deux with Dumas’ lifeless body, lifting and carrying her all over the stage, pouring out his love, his rage, and his grief.

Dumas remained inert as the music and the passion swelled, coming back to life for just a few precious moments, her second death intensifying Hall’s anguish and devastation. Tears flowed freely throughout Knight Theater.

Action before intermission, though clearly distinguishing the protagonists from the others, wasn’t always as brilliant. Janes tells the story well in theatrical vignettes, but there needed to be more real dancing from the supporting players. There could be more ensemble work when Catherine and Heathcliff first spy on the Lintons. By the time we do reach the outbreak of dance at the Catherine-Edgar wedding, it feels overdue and overlong.

Drew Grant as foster brother Hindley and James Kopecky as Edgar had unique dancing spots, Grant in a high-stakes card game with Heathcliff and Kopecky vying with Heathcliff for Catherine’s affections. Other supporting players – most notably Mark Diamond as Heathcliff’s foster father and Sarah Hayes Harkins as his wife Isabella – further demonstrated the depth of the Charlotte Ballet company with their exemplary dramatic work.

Though a final tribute to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has been hurriedly arranged for next month, Wuthering Heights was to be the last program in Bonnefoux’s 21-year tenure as Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. Fittingly enough, the last ballet commissioned for the company under Bonnefoux’s leadership was paired with the first new work commissioned during Bonnefoux’s years, Alonzo King’s MAP, premiered when the company was still known as North Carolina Dance Theatre.

Bridging 1996-2017, the two works were a handsome frame for an impressive artistic director, president, and choreographer. Bonnefoux strengthened a company that was already excellent and made it more prominent in the city’s life. With its powerhouse educational and apprentice programs, Charlotte Ballet now plays a more important role in the city’s future. My turn to lead the cheers, Jean-Pierre. Bravo!

Two Pieces by Sasha Janes Highlight Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works

Review Dance: Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works and Its Tribute to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux
By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Twenty years is a long time in the history of a dance troupe – four or more generations for Charlotte Ballet if you calculate how long the typical dancer remains before moving along or retiring. Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, is taking the latter route after 20 seasons at the helm, an era during which excellence was admirably sustained while the organization grew in strength, most notably in its facilities and educational programming. So it was appropriate to dedicate the latest iteration of Innovative Works as a special tribute to Bonnefoux, not only because this annual showcase of new, exciting, and intimate works was his brainchild but because its current home has been the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance since 2011. There’s no better place for Charlotte Ballet to celebrate.

When Bonnefoux first divulged his imminent fadeout to emeritus status a couple of years ago, he told me that he wouldn’t be choreographing any new pieces, although some new wrinkles were evident in the million-dollar makeover of his Nutcracker last fall. There were no surprises in the 2017 crop of Innovative pieces. The in-house feel of the programming still remains intact, all of the choreographers hailing from within the Charlotte Ballet orbit without any unexpected debuts.

The program began and ended with pieces by associate artistic director (and resident choreographer) Sasha Janes, whose pieces continue to grow more intriguing every year. In between, there were works by Mark Diamond, director of Charlotte Ballet II, Sarah Hayes Harkins, a longtime principal in the company, and David Ingram, a fondly-remembered alum. Continuing the tradition of recent years, each of these choreographers cut an intro that was projected on the side walls of the McBride-Bonnefoux studio before each dance began. Since Janes’ “Hallejujah” was a reprise from last year, Bonnefoux took the opportunity of subbing for Janes, reflecting back on his Innovative series while introducing a piece that was well worth its revival.

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Opening the program, Janes’ “Utopia” was a startling piece to come from a man who spent his formative years in Australia, born more than a decade after the songs on his playlist – by The Platters, Link Wray, Patience & Prudence, and The Teddy Bears – found their way to jukeboxes on 45 rpm discs. The Aussie’s erudition with The Platters is particularly impressive in his sardonic look at 1950’s American domesticity, where everything wasn’t the Father Knows Best bliss that Eisenhower voters would have us recall. “No Matter What You Are,” the song that bookends Janes’ piece, isn’t at all among The Platters’ greatest hits. For over a half century, it has been hidden in plain view on the flipside of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – a clever hint that we’re watching the flipside of the Ike Era. With Elizabeth Truell as the Wife and Josh Hall as the Husband, we watch the typical morning scene of seeing the family breadwinner off to work. Only there was some visible desperation from Truell as she clung to her husband, handing him his hat and briefcase, the devoted housewife gone slightly berserk. Hall was visibly impatient and eager to go, irritated with all the affectionate blandishments, but as we adjourned to his office with “The Great Pretender” (The Platters’ breakthrough hit), we could see that the Husband was suffering from frustrations – and neuroses – of his own.

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Enter Jamie Dee Clifton as the Secretary, to the beat – and power chords – of Wray’s “Rumble.” Her attempts at seduction got a far more welcome reception from the Husband, though there were definitely some signs of distress as he absorbed the vamping. Yet with Patience and Prudence’s “Tonight You Belong to Me,” there could be no doubting Secretary’s conquest, though the necking session was interrupted by a phone call from the patiently waiting Wife back home. Truell’s ensuing solo, begun on the couch of her Psychiatrist (Michael Menghini) was the most sensational segment of the suite for me, savagely contrasted with the cuddlesome harmonies of The Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” The frenetic energies that preceded this therapy session came to full boil, overflowing into a primal scream that Truell delivered into the unresponsive shrink’s face (before he presented his bill). As Janes predicted in his intro, the repetition of “No Matter What You Are” and the bizarre morning send-off took on an added level of irony as we saw so much more clearly how the lyrics applied to the married couple’s daily ritual.

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The other works that preceded intermission weren’t as daring, ambitious, or satisfying. Set to a Chopin favorite, Harkins’ “Gemini” never convinced me that we were seeing two aspects of the same individual, and the promised improvisation element eluded me altogether though the performances by Drew Grant and Ben Ingel were certainly intriguing. Part of the problem was the damage that the McBride-Bonnefoux acoustics did to Ingel’s monologue when he ventured into the audience. Not sitting in the center sections, I hardly understood a word. Nor could I tell what it was that Grant replied from the stage or determine whether it echoed what his partner had just spoken. In this one respect, Booth Playhouse, where Innovative was staged 1998-2009, was a better venue, though it was no better for pre-recorded music and less hospitable for lobby receptions. “Ever After” by Diamond was a better showcase for Harkins’ talents as she partnered with Hall in an abstract piece about the transition to afterlife, set to music by J.S. Bach, Ivan Spassov, and Karl Jenkins. Destined to partner in the program finale later in the evening, the Harkins-Hall duo stole most of what was left, in the wake of Rose Nuchims’ lighting design, of the focus that could have gone to the three other couples onstage. Another barrier to full appreciation was the language barrier, Bach’s German and Jenkins’ Latin.

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Following the hypnotic ecstasy of Diamond’s piece, Ingram’s new “Flamouriá” after the break was rousing and refreshing, set to the music of Luigi Boccherini, which deserves to be heard more often. The modern visuals – huge balloons suspended over the action, projections on the rear wall – clashed provocatively with the 18th century score, and a certain amount of sloppiness was built in to the concept. Movement by four couples, led by Alessandra Ball James and James Kopecky, was by the dancers, “curated” by Ingram. This sparked numerous questions as I watched. Like the other works on the program, “Flamouriá” will be danced by multiple sets of dancers as Innovative continues it run through February 18. So, will the movement change to accord with the other set of dancers – and did Ingram allow his performers any latitude, or multiple choices, in their movements? Unfortunately, some of the sloppiness I witnessed was layered on by the new projection technology that was lavished on the piece. Most of the video was blurry and, at times, edges of the projections cut randomly and inelegantly on the rear screen, stealing focus from the dancers. I’d also thought that those massive white balloons might double as projection surfaces – a potential that went unfulfilled. There were some special moments when Nuchims’ lighting was uncluttered by the new gadgetry, most notably when the dancers became silhouettes against the ginormous backlighting of the rear screen.

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Little needs to be added to the raves I posted at my own website a year ago when Janes’ “Hallelujah” was first unveiled as the penultimate segment of his “Sketches from Grace,” especially since Harkins and Hall danced it last January as well. Okay, maybe not as well as they did this year after living another year with the piece and their dance partnership. The “Sketches,” originally intended by Janes as a tribute to Leonard Cohen, was deflected from its original purpose when the choreographer heard Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” and turned the suite into a Buckley-based sequence. But if Janes had introduced this year’s reprise instead of Bonnefoux, I suspect that he would have mentioned the Canadian troubadour’s death (on the eve of our momentous Election Day). Pared down to the originating essence of  became a fitting tribute to Cohen, with Harkins and Hall sensuously evoking the darkness of his vision through their memorial flame.

Moscow Ballet’s “Nutcracker” Brims With Tradition, Grace, and Delight

Review : Great Russian Nutcracker

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Now in its 24th annual North American tour with traditional Russian favorites, the Moscow Ballet is a massive enterprise to contemplate. Three separate tours are currently crisscrossing the US and Western Canada with their Great Russian Nutcracker. So on December 11, for example, when the Central tour came to Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, the Eastern tour was in Syracuse, NY, and the Western tour was in Albuquerque, NM. And what about back home? We can’t imagine that the cupboard is bare back in the Motherland, where the puissant Putin rules.

So after seeing the new $1 million Charlotte Ballet remount of Tchaikovsky’s holiday favorite, I was curious to see how the Great Russian would compare – with Moscow’s resources and talent spread so far and wide. The negatives manifested themselves pretty quickly. You can’t replace the curtains with proscenium-spanning art at over 100 theaters when you’re only performing there just once, with few exceptions, and you can’t tour with three symphony orchestras playing the beloved score live.

Nor can you take over 200 schoolchildren on tours that last over a month – 54 days, in the case of the mammoth Western tour. This is where the Great Russian also becomes the friendly Nutcracker, for the Moscow Ballet teamed with Gay Porter’s Charlotte School of Ballet to fill over 70 roles: Party Children, Mice, Snowflakes, Snow Maidens, Snow Sprites, and backup dancers for the Act 2 divertissements by Moscow’s Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and French soloists.

So on any given night, over 200 costumes may be worn by aspiring dancers who hail from the towns where Moscow Ballet performs. Talk about outreach. Over 5,000 young dancers are getting to rehearse, perform, and wear those wondrous costumes in through Moscow’s Dance With Me program. Better than Halloween, as the Donald would say, believe me.

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The negatives I’ve spoken of soon recede. I didn’t have to send up a flare to alert the people in the soundbooth that the music was turned up too loud, but I did wish it were potted down sooner. When the curtains parted at Ovens, Moscow’s newly revamped scenery, with new designs by Carl Sprague, was definitely in the same class as Charlotte Ballet’s, with a faux proscenium as ornate as the real one I’d seen the previous weekend.

There weren’t as many scene changes as Charlotte Ballet lavishes on their production. The sleigh that carries Masha – better known to us as Clara – to the Land of Peace and Harmony remains earthbound instead of flying, and did the parade of playful 10-foot-high puppets ballyhooed in the program synopsis really escape my notice? Don’t think so. Most of these beasts were depicted on the imposing backdrop in a style vaguely reminiscent of Henri Rousseau.

Other details that distinguished this Nutcracker from those I’m accustomed to did not escape detection. Though there wasn’t liftoff for the sleigh, it was conveyed to Peace and Harmony by “Ded Moroz,” Russia’s Father Christmas, and Snow Maiden “Snegurochka,” both resplendently attired in Carolina – um, cerulean – blue costumes newly designed by Arthur Oliver. Uncle Drosselmeyer was a jovial gift-giving enchanter, still sporting a cape but more like a ringmaster or a game show host. And imagine, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier never appear! Instead, it’s Masha and the Nutcracker Prince who dance the grand pas de deux.

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After receiving so many gifts, Masha and her Prince present their dance to – the flowers that just waltzed for them? The synopsis is mum on that point, but Ekaterina Bortiakova is pure delight as our heroine, most adorable when does her simple tippy-toe shtick in the “Dance of Sugar Plum Fairy,” as light as the celesta cuing each step. She’s graceful, demure, vivacious, and youthful enough for us to imagine Nutcracker as a coming-of-age story. Andrey Batalov brings star quality of his own to the role of the Prince, definitely a cavalier partner when he sheds his Nutcracker headgear and brocaded waistcoat, most memorable when he whirls around the stage in his uptempo solo.

Choreography by balletmaster Stanislov Vlasov adheres to the manner of Tchaikovsky’s original collaborators, Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, most challenging when we arrive at the Act 2 showcases. Casting in these key spots is predictable, since only one pair of partners is listed for each of the divertissements, but most of the major roles we see in Act 1 are double-cast, including Masha and the Nutcracker Prince. Chiefly worthy of mention here were Sergey Dotsenko, a dashing Uncle Drosselmeyer in his florid purple cape, and Meievsky Vsevelod as the furtive and menacing Rat King.

Four of the six couples who partnered in Act 2 etched themselves vividly in my memory. In the snowy transition between the Stahlbaums’ Christmas soiree and Masha’s final destination, Anna Radik and an unmasked Dotsenko were the most sculpturesque of the couples as the Dove of Peace, each one of the silvery dancers bearing one of the bird’s luxuriant 10-foot-wide white wings, another new Oliver design. Perpetually leaning left with index fingers pointing upwards, Kseniia Stukalenko and Vladyslav Stepanov were the most charming and amusing pair as the Chinese Variation.

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Contrasting marvelously – again – with the perky Chinese, Radik and Dotsenko returned as the smoldering Arabian Variation, with Radik executing snaky contortions that were unrivaled by anything else we saw. Clearly this was the most sensuous couple of the afternoon, but Veronika Melnyk and Michail Botoc as the Russian Variation took us to another dimension – sheer athleticism. Botoc, in particular, astonished with a series of leg-split jumps, a string of somersaults that spanned half the stage, and various gymnastic moves, effectively stealing the latter moments of the show. He even persisted during the curtain calls, unfurling the famed Cossack Kazatsky squat dance, more than sufficient reason why Putin wishes to recover the Ukraine.

The couple sitting next to my wife and me have a daughter who will be dancing with this tour when it arrives in Detroit. They came to Charlotte because one of their kin was a Charlotte School of Ballet student in a similar role at this performance. I could see that they had no regrets at all about making the trip to see a Mouse. Very likely, they and their daughter view the Great Russian Nutcracker as the experience of a lifetime. From the ovation and the swells of applause that spontaneously broke out all over Ovens during curtain calls, it was obvious that hundreds of non-relatives felt the same

Charlotte Ballet’s New $1 Million Nut Is Everything It Was Cracked Up to Be

Dance Review :  Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Many of the people who jammed into Belk Theater on Saturday afternoon, nearly filling the top balcony to the rafters, were wondering the same thing as I was. Just how much can $1 million do to improve Charlotte Ballet’s already stellar production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker? There weren’t any gaping holes that needed to be filled in when it came to the live music. Charlotte Symphony has played the ballet score beautifully ever since Salvatore Aiello transplanted the dance troupe, originally known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, from Winston-Salem in 1990.

Many of the musicians – and many of the orchestra’s principals – who accompanied Aiello’s setting for Nutcracker in the early years have played on through the many iterations of Jean-Pierre Boonefoux’s choreography, which premiered in 2006. Every one of the players works up the same zest for the music as the year before. Nor can money buy a much finer array of dancers to fill the stage with agility and grace. Calling the dancers in Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II – not to mention the various levels of apprentices, trainees, and students from the company’s Academy – the best in North Carolina may actually be an understatement.

Of course, the unprecedented gift had garnered plenty of positive publicity for the donors, the McColl family of Bank of America fame, and the worthy recipients. Unless you had completely ignored the Charlotte Observer for the past three months, you already knew that the McColl makeover would bring new Nutcracker costumes and new scenery to the Belk stage – and to lavishly renovated Gaillard Center in Charleston, where the Christmas classic will sojourn on December 10 and 11 before returning to Charlotte on December 13-23 for an additional 13 performances. I probably wasn’t alone in bringing a show-me attitude to the unusual matinee premiere, for the costumes, the scenery, and the spectacle of Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker, incrementally upgraded in its early years, had already proven to be quite formidable in their elegance and wit.

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Holly Hynes’s new set of costume designs gobbled up most of the prepublicity. Taking her inspiration from the Belle Epoque (1871-1914), Hynes and a team of 300 dressmakers in 15 states created 208 new costumes, each one costing as much as $6000. As she confessed in one of the two infomercials I’ve seen, Hynes often had to rely on a bunch of polyester to offset the extravagance of the dancers’ silks. The new scenery by Alain Vaës obviously took its inspiration from Bonnefoux’s traditional Nutcracker scenario and Steven Rubin’s set designs, seeming to depart more radically from Rubin’s concepts as the story moved from the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party to Clara’s dreamy fantasies, developing a whole new motif of whimsy – lifesize cutouts! – along the way.

Vaës wasn’t working with a paltry budget, either. A whole new trim, teeming with red, covered the entire arc of the proscenium. The backlit scrim of the Staulbaums’ town, more brightly lit by the lamplight gleaming through the windows of the homes than by the moonlight, greeted us like the frontispiece of a storybook.

In its nocturnal grayness, the first exterior view of the Staulbaum home was very similar to Rubin’s, but we were looking from a greater distance, seeing all that can be seen instead of merely the front façade. There was a little more humor in the gradual reveal of the magnificent interior, for the first of the new cutouts, a housemaid, was wheeled out to centerstage to greet the guests. Onto its outstretched arms, the parade of guests flung coats, stoles, and scarves until this cunning portable closet was rolled away.

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Imagery in the new Vaës scenic designs is bolder, more calculated to appear colossal, and the designer’s drawings evoked for me two of the great masterworks of the Belle Epoque, War and Peace and Alice in Wonderland. Probably by sheer accident, the bold muscularity and the florid curves in some of the scenery reminded me of Fritz Eichenberg’s memorable illustrations for the Heritage edition of Tolstoy’s epic. But the evocation of Alice was quite intentional. After the party, when Clara nodded off, the Mouse King entered the scene on a broken teacup for his royal battle with the Nutcracker. Once Clara assisted her champion in his victory, the set changed briefly to a surreal and magical toyland, where the head of Clara’s doll was as large as the castle. Very Alice.

The new scenery also brings fresh emphasis to numerous arrivals. Drosselmeyer’s amazing gifts, Clara’s Toy Doll and her brother Fritz’s Toy Soldier, arrive on carts where each of them is flanked by two lifesize cutouts of the same toy. Instead of lifting her massive skirts to reveal her periwigged Marzipan brood, Mother Ginger arrived on the second floor of her own gingerbread house, opening the front doors to let them out. But aside from the Mouse King’s teacup and the flying balloon-boat that carries Clara off to the Land of Sweets – a galleon now large enough to transport two honeymooning couples – the most significant entrance was created for Herr Drosselmeyer. He arrived at the Stahlbaum soirée in his own clock tower!

Mark Diamond may hold onto his annual stint as Drosselmeyer even after he’s forced to arrive clutching a walker, for he still revels in reminding us with his comical antics that he himself is program director of Charlotte Ballet II and, more importantly, one of the company’s potent line of resident choreographers. The Drosselmeyer shtick always looks like Diamond is doing his own thing, altering the routine every year – maybe every performance.

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The new clock draws the spotlight in Mary Louise Geiger’s new lighting design when Tchaikovsky’s score tolls the midnight hour chez Stahlbaum. Using his new cutouts, Bonnefoux completely alters this segment in his choreography. In past years, spotlights flashed on a different costumed kid each time the bell tolled, unpredictably scanning the full width of the stage. Now there was simply a single-file parade of various cutouts, their manipulators hidden behind them. As we approached the final chiming, we had our first glimpse of the lifesize girl doll that would enlarge to supernatural Alice-size in the yet-unseen scenery.

Geiger also teamed up with Hynes on some of the new magic. Like the opening cityscape, Vaës’s new Land of Sweets builds on Rubin’s previous concept of candy canes and gumdrops by putting us at a greater distance and increasing its scale. We could now see a huge skylight window in the rooftop dome opening up on a starry evening sky. At floor level below, the view also opens up to the outdoors, directing our gaze toward the horizon. Initially, there was a marked difference between the two views: it was still twilight on the horizon while it was already evening above.

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In this unflattering light, we had our first glimpse of the newly minted backup dancers for the Coffee segment. Their bright red skirts, contrasting sharply with their dark blouses, seemed garish under the bright light between the little Marzipan and Candy Cane groups. But Geiger would dramatically lower the lights for Raven Barkley and Ben Ingel, so it was now (briefly) nighttime both on the horizon and above when they performed their sinuous Coffee pas de deux – and the perfection of the six backup dancers’ glowing red skirts in this dimmed light redeemed them from the first impressions they had made. Their pink capes also made a difference.

In little ways and in big ways, Bonnefoux and his design team have heightened the wow factor in staging their spectacle. Just for the Tea segment in Act 2, a Chinese dragon drops down from the flyloft for a visit, and the Stahlbaums’ Christmas tree no longer stops it miraculous growth when its piney peak hits the ceiling. Now when Drosselmeyer cast his spell, that growth continued on the upstage backdrop until the entire upstage wall was filled with what we imagined was a wee portion of the fabulously gigantic tree. You need not worry that such awesome stagecraft at all diminishes the exploits of the dancers. Aided by their revamped costumes, Charlotte Ballet still measured up to the superabundance surrounding them.

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Rosie Morrison as Clara and Clay Houston as Fritz may be the most personable Stahlbaum kids I’ve seen. The precision and perfection of Sarah Hayes Harkins as the Sugar Plum Fairy will surely inspire little ballerinas who see Nutcracker for the first time. Harkins hits every beat with her elegant movements exactly on the nose, and her new partner, Drew Grant, is the picture of chivalry as her Cavalier, though the rookie needs to loosen up a bit. Chelsea Dumas and Ben Ingel were a similarly ideal couple at the premiere as the Snow Queen and King, and Alessandra Ball James was luminous in her musicality as Rose in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Below tea green tops, Rose’s dozen dancing flowers sported frilly three-tiered skirts, each tier a different tint of pink or fuchsia. Even a child could recognize the stems and petals of the flowers for what they were.

Except for Fritz, who is merely doublecast, there’s a dizzying rotation of four dancers for each of the major roles I just named. It would take an astronomer to predict when, where, and if this exact alignment will occur again, so let me merely add the names of the other dancers who will figure in the dizzying mix: Jamie Dee Clifton, Elizabeth Truell, and Sarah Lapointe among the ladies, James Kopecky and Juwan Alston among the gentlemen.

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The athleticism of the Charlotte Ballet men did shine through during the Act 2 procession of divertissements, counterbalancing the dominance of the ballerinas. Newcomer Peter Mazurowski sparkled in the Gopak section and, under that dragon, Humberto Ramazzina from the II troupe served charmingly – and deferentially – in Tea. Both of these men are in a rotation of three men who will dance their roles. So will Ryo Suzuki, whom I wasn’t seeing for the first time as Candy Cane. I don’t think I’ve seen Ryo’s match in performing Candy’s joyously asymmetrical leaps, but I’m sure parents and children of all ages will be satisfied when Suzuki rotates to Tea and Gopak.