Tag Archives: Charlotte Ballet

King of Pop Invades Popo in Leonce and Lena

Review: US premiere of Christian Spuck’s Leonce and Lena in Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the action in the US premiere of Christian Spuck’s Leonce and Lena reached its climax, King Peter of Popo stepped forward on the Knight Theater stage to make an important announcement – to the audience, presumably, for the rest of the Charlotte Ballet cast stood respectfully and expectantly behind him. King Peter struggled mightily to express himself, never quite succeeding in uttering a syllable, though I’m sure I heard a consonant.

Summoning up more power and determination, the doddering King of Popo snapped his fingers. Behold, the house lights came on. But still, when he faced us squarely, no words came out. Well-heeled ballet mavens would have scanned their programs by now and read the synopsis, knowing before Peter’s abortive attempts at speech that he was probably announcing the upcoming wedding of his son, Prince Leonce, to Princess Lena of Pipi.

Or, since Leonce and Lena had fled their respective kingdoms back in Act 1, perhaps Peter was announcing a kingdom-wide search for the absent bride and groom-to-be. A reward for whoever found and returned them? That would certainly be in keeping with fairytale decorum.

That the ineffectual king snapped his fingers and brought the house lights back down was no longer a big surprise. But Spuck had plenty more shtick in reserve for James Kopecky, the dancer in Peter’s royal regalia who had pitifully shrunk away from us in defeat. Shedding his doddering persona, Peter busted a whole bevy of pop dance moves, including a stylish anthology of moves associated with the concerts and videos of Michael Jackson.

“You are the king!” I was tempted to shout.

There probably were shouts amid the hubbub of laughter and surprise that greeted this dramatic break from Peter’s previous character. You couldn’t doubt that Spuck’s intentions were largely comical, but if you found an edge of satire lurking beneath the laughs, you might also find it challenging to decide who or what the targets could be.

A powdered periwig that detonates in the opening scene reliably tells us that ceremonial pretensions were definitely in Spuck’s crosshairs. The fawning and fussing of Peter’s underlings are also mercilessly exposed in the costume designs of Emma Ryott and Spuck’s choreography. Repeatedly in Popo, the presumed grandeur of fairytale kingdoms – or European kingdoms so obscure they might as well be fairytales – is repeatedly punctured. Peter’s first wedding announcement is scrawled on a humble blackboard, with interlocking rings hastily drawn with chalk, while Leonce listens to his music on his friend Valerio’s wee boombox instead of adjourning to an dignified spinet.

What Charlotte Ballet subscribers are most likely to overlook, until Kopecky’s King of Pop antics conk them over the head with it, is that Spuck’s prime satirical target is ballet itself. Robotic choreography, such as we see in Leonce and Lena among Peter’s sycophants and later among the Italian townspeople, has been part of the balletic arsenal since the days of Copéllia and Nutcracker in the 19th century. That isn’t where I was finding Spuck’s fresh assault on ballet conventions. No, it’s the royal lovebirds who are most hilariously antithetical to ballet.

Instead of the customary piety, elegance, or bookishness that might mark Leonce and Lena as kindred spirits, Spuck points up their pure boredom. Nor is this mere low-key eyeroll boredom. This is enervated, prone, cradling-your-chin-in-the-palm-of-your-hand boredom. While Leonce is moping on the floor, he does something even more unbefitting the heir to the Popo throne: he propels himself along the ground like an inchworm. Backwards.

The alienation that Lena and Leonce feel toward their parents is demonstrated, in a charmingly antiquated way, by the music they listen to. At court, we’re likely to hear the waltzes of Johan Strauss Jr., including the majestic Emperor Waltz. Lena and her loyal Governess prefer to unwind with a coy version of Cole Porter’s sexually suggestive “Let’s Do It,” while the less fiercely rebellious Leonce and Valerio crank up Burl Ives’ greatest hit, “A Little Bitty Tear” on the boombox.

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Less downcast than their besties, Peter Mazurowski as Valerio and Alessandra Ball James as the Governess get to sparkle more at their respective castles before the young royals hit the road – and wear the less humdrum costumes. They also spark more readily with each other when the quartet meets up in Italy. Love at first sight between Leonce and Lena is more of a slow burn and more passionate, allowing Colby Foss as the Prince and Sarah Hayes Harkins to fire up a singularly quirky pas de deux that will linger in your memory. Notice that Stuck sticks them side-by-side in this whirlwind courtship, not forgetting how he established their characters.

Meanwhile, Mazurowski and James’ settle into a comedy groove that has belonged to second-banana couples on stage and on screen since before the days of Guys and Dolls. Then the zany Finale, when they return to Popo to crash the wedding – and stop the show almost as hysterically as Kopecky.

Plotwise, where ballet and its mute characters always have difficulties in storytelling, Spuck gets a little haphazard when Leonce and Lena part from each other in Italy. There’s a bit of Cinderella-at-midnight confusion to how Lena abruptly leaves Leonce. So it’s quite possible on your way home, after the full happily-ever-after tale has been told, that you’ll be asking yourself: when love first exploded between them, did Leonce and Lena even tell each other who they were?

During the final scene; filled with masquers, eccentrics, a wedding bower, and the king’s antics; you’ll likely be too entertained to worry about tying up such stray details. You might, on the other hand, miss Chelsea Dumas’ pouting as Rosetta and her unsuccessful flirtations. Pursuing Leonce in the opening act, Dumas neatly livened the action and underscored the Prince’s ennui. Maybe Spuck could bring Rosetta back to ply her charms on queenless King Peter! Such monkeyshines would be quite apropos in Popo.

Hook, Tink, and the Croc All Chomp Scenery in Bonnefoux’s Merry “Peter Pan”

Review:  Peter Pan

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Swordfights and kidnapping are still part of the action in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s scenario for Peter Pan, and the choreographer hasn’t stinted on the services of Flying by Foy when Peter takes Wendy and her sibs back and forth from Neverland. If you thought the musical version of James M. Barrie’s beloved fantasy injected a little hambone into the villainous Captain Hook, you’ll marvel at how completely this Charlotte Ballet production slathers him in it – with extra dollops divvied out to Tinker Bell and Hook’s menacing nemesis, The Croc.

Bonnefoux first unveiled his choreography in 2004, celebrating the centennial of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow, and the current run at Knight Theater marks the third time the comedy has been revived since then. With a score that is top-heavy with Rossini overtures, the mood never grows somber enough for Tink to nobly drink Peter’s poisoned milk – or for Wendy to take an arrow from the Lost Boys on her Neverland arrival.

It’s more about dancing and fun, so I’m hoping pickets and protests won’t be organized because Hook cut Wendy free and danced with her after she was abducted to his pirate ship. That was not the first nor the last of the bizarre pairings and tableaus occasioned by Bonnefoux’s mischievous reshaping of Barrie’s characters. While still quite diaphanous and elegant as Tinker Bell, Sarah Hayes Harkins expanded on her jealousy toward Wendy to the point of pugnacity, also targeting Tiger Lily for her adorable aggression. Over and over, the Wendy-Peter-Tiger Lily pas-de-trois was disrupted by Harkins’ interventions and comical assaults. Making Tink more flirtatious chimed well with that profile, though we the audience bore the brunt of Harkins’ simpering.

As Bonnefoux shows us again and again, crocs also want to have more fun. It’s not just terrorizing Hook that delighted Jared Sutton as Crocodile (along with a half dozen Baby Crocodiles, students from the Charlotte Ballet Academy), he barged into the celebratory dance of Peter, Wendy, Tink, and Tiger Lily, joining their merry reel. Having stolen that scene, Sutton chomped down another with a solo display capped by a moonwalk across the downstage. Most heretical – and inspired – of all Bonnefoux’s innovations, when the heraldic trumpets sounded in the mighty “William Tell Overture,” the Croc got a hold of…

Nah, I shouldn’t give it away.

New set designs by Howard Jones and costume makeovers by A. Christina Giannini were commissioned for the 2013 relaunch of the Bonnefoux choreography. Maybe city fire marshals confiscated the bridge for the Baby Crocs to cross the orchestra pit, but otherwise, the new Jones sets still look fresh and new. I’m not at all sure Giannini hasn’t fussed some more with the costumes, for I no longer see the Croc as a green major domo, and Peter looks sufficiently bland and sporty to have done his clothes shopping at J.C. Penney.

The traditional foppery has vanished from Hook’s attire, so the pirate king now seems modeled after the “fantastical” oddness we associate with Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Dancing without outerwear as Hook, Drew Grant still stood apart from his pirate crew, not an easy achievement when some are S&M females, crossing over from foppery to outright effeminacy to get the job done. For brash hambone outrageousness, Grant far outdistanced Harkins, vying with Sutton for top honors. One of the many ankelbiters in the audience was laughing uncontrollably at some of Grant’s opening night antics, a sure sign that he was on to something.

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The dramatic characters, while shamelessly upstaged, were beautifully danced. Josh Hall sparkled with innocent arrogance as Peter Pan, smilingly sure he was the envy of all, and Alessandra Ball James gracefully straddled the borderline between girlishness and pubescence as Wendy, projecting genuine wonder and joy in taking flight for the first time – of course, there was no lingering tedium from doing it over and over in rehearsals!

There was no ambiguity at all about the womanhood of Raven Barkley as Tiger Lily, charmingly shedding her petals before she danced her tropical solo. Discreetly, Bonnefoux and Giannini have adhered to political correctness, so we now have 18 Incas in Tiger Lily’s train instead of Native Americans. Unlike the Crocs and the Butterflies, none of the Incas are cute little children, another instance of Bonnefoux’s taste and wisdom.

The Incas and Sutton as the Croc are the only dancers in the show who are single-cast. All four of the matinees – and one of the remaining four evening performances – will be performed by a second cast. Part of the spectacle spills over into the Knight Theater lobby, where there is plenty of Pan, Hook, and Wendy swag on sale. My mom and I were obliged to halt in the lobby upon our arrival until a line of kids and parents got to experience their photo op in front of the stylish Charlotte Ballet background. You could pose for a camera holding various printed placards with appropriate Neverland quips and slogans.

I only had to explain – confirm, really – one aspect of the show to Mom, which takes me to the remaining comical character, Ben Ingel as Shadow. Ingel cavorts with Harkins’ Tink in the Darling children’s bedroom before Hall arrives as Peter, emerging from under one of the little brothers’ beds to shadow Tink before Peter claims him. Obviously, there’s a pre-history that would need to be explained to any child who isn’t already familiar with the story. I’m glad that Bonnefoux left this episode in his scenario, because for once it allows Wendy and Peter to be a part of the comedy.

Ball, officiously sewing as Wendy, and Hall, squirming and feeling the needle as Peter, made a full three-course meal of the ceremony, and the audience caught up by the time Wendy’s needlework was done. A vanishing act by Ingel and a well-aimed spotlight by lighting designer Jennifer Propst underscored what it had all been about, and of course, Propst was also up to the dramatic moment we all remember from childhood: when the big windows of the Darlings’ bedroom magically spread open and Peter Pan flew into our imaginations for the first time, never to leave.

“Rite of Spring” Showcases the Best of Charlotte Symphony and Ballet

Review:  Rite of Spring: Reinvented

By Perry Tannenbaum

As scarce as modern music was in Charlotte Symphony’s classics concerts last fall – or anything that wasn’t by Beethoven – subscribers can be delighted (or appalled) by the cavalcade of moderns this spring. Sibelius, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bernstein were all beautifully represented at Belk Theater in March, encouraging Charlotte’s staunch traditionalists to discard their modern music trepidations at the beginning of April and come out en masse for Rite of Spring: Reinvented, an evening of Stravinsky.

Further enticement to come and hear Christopher Warren-Green leading the orchestra came from Charlotte Ballet. Newly led by Hope Muir in her first season as artistic director, the company would not only reprise George Balanchine’s setting for Apollon musagète, they would also be premiering a new choreographic setting by Peter Chu for the seminal Rite of Spring.

The proven excellence of Symphony in modern repertoire, the excitement of a collaboration with Charlotte Ballet, and the lure of a world premiere probably all contributed to filling the hall with subscribers and newcomers. Yet there was another element in play. While the Apollon served as a calling card for the company’s magisterial authority in all things Balanchine, the world premiere of Chu’s Rite served as a showcase for their backup Charlotte Ballet II troupe, as well as their company apprentices, youth ballet participants, and students in the Charlotte Ballet Reach program.

Serving children 7-13, Reach is obviously an impressive program with branches at the Ivory Baker Recreation Center, the Albemarle Road Recreation Center, and the Hickory Grove Recreation Center. Of the 67 performers involved in Rite of Spring, 48 were from the Reach program, all performing for the first time at Belk Theater. Some of these kids had never attended any event there before.

Such an event would be a big deal for parents and relatives – as it is when Charlotte Youth Ballet performs Ovens Auditorium or Knight Theater elsewhere in town. Conceiving his Rite of Spring as a community event, Chu didn’t hurt ticket sales at all, for those friends, parents, and relatives certainly came out to see these students perform.

What they saw raised Symphony and Ballet to a higher plateau, even in the Apollon reprise. Because Symphony had been reduced to approximately 30 players for the most recent run of Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, it had been awhile since the full ensemble had performed from the orchestra pit in their collaborative relationship. And because Opera Carolina seats the press down at stage level, this may have been the first time I’d heard them performing in the pit from the vantage point of the grand tier.

From the downstairs level, the sound of the Charlotte Symphony can be slightly constricted from the pit, although our main attention in opera is always on the stage. Up in the grand tier, where my Symphony tickets are, I found that the confines of the pit added a warm glow to the sound, a welcome aura for patrons who might find the Belk’s acoustics too clinical and in-your-face when the orchestra plays from the stage.

Performing Apollon to live music also had a gratifying effect on the Charlotte Ballet performance. Strumming on Apollo’s lyre, Josh Hall seemed to be playing the instrument for the first time, precisely in sync with Stravinsky’s score instead of vaguely going through the motions. The newfound synergy between Balanchine’s choreography and Stravinsky’s helped to make the reprise of Hall’s performance fresh again.

So did the continuing grace and charm of his three muses, Chelsea Dumas as Calliope, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Polyhymnia, and Alessandra Ball James as Terpsichore. Even the iconic sun-god tableau, perhaps the most compelling Balanchine image that Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride gave to us when they took the reins of Charlotte Ballet, was freshened by the live music. Hearing the delighted surprise of so many ballet newbies in the crowd to this famous ending freshened it more.

Depicting a human sacrifice, Stravinsky’s scenario was definitely communal – but also barbaric, no more heartwarming than Shirley Jackson’s classic, “The Lottery.” Yet in setting this oftentimes harsh music for a large group of children who hadn’t finished middle school, Chu and costume director Aimee Coleman weren’t aiming to turn this scenario into pure sunshine.

On the contrary, the most haunting images Chu and Coleman created with their large cast was of waves of migration – poor peoples under stress, fleeing war and tyranny, caring deeply for their children, and looking for a peaceful homeland. Exactly the kind of people that America’s ruling party doesn’t want to think about, let alone welcome. Chu and his large cast, to put it another way, turned the primitive barbarity of Stravinsky’s original scenario for the Ballet Russes in 1913 into a more modern barbarism – showing the effects of tyranny, war, and callous indifference upon unmistakably good people.

I’m not sure Chu’s scenario needed to be quite as inchoate as the refugees’ lives that he depicts. Showing us the tyrants, the jackboots, or the marauders that the good folk were fleeing might have given a more substantial shape to what we were witnessing. Nor did I feel that the Charlotte Ballet II dancers were stretched anywhere near to their fullest. Yet Chu’s images of mass migration and parents fretting their children’s survival were more than sufficiently powerful to make the big audience at the Belk feel involved in this community happening.

The event also seemed to be special for Warren-Green and the Symphony musicians. Apollon is more sedate than you expect Stravinsky to be, and the ensemble called forth all its beauties. But when we reached barbarities of Stravinsky’s Rite, nobody in the pit was holding back, and the essence of the music came through with all its primal force.

Production Values Continue to Evolve at Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works

Innovative Works_Yamato_Dancer Ryo Suzuki

By Perry Tannenbaum

January 29, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Ever since the event was created in 2003, when Charlotte Ballet was known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, Innovative Works has been a special event in the company’s season, performed at a special venue that further set it apart. The size of these venues, the length of the pieces on the program, and the number of dancers in each work were all smaller than the big ensemble pieces staged at Belk Theater and, more recently, at Knight Theater. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux was not only providing a platform for edgier, lapidary pieces, he was also establishing an incubator for new choreographers, usually dancers or former dancers in the company, to expand their creativity and pave a pathway to their afterlives when they were no longer onstage.

Works first seen at Innovative have not only enriched the repertoire of Charlotte’s pre-eminent performing arts group, they have served as springboards for further choreographic creations and for the formation of new companies outside Charlotte established by the former fledglings. This year’s collection of miniatures, running at the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance through February 20, presents the brainchildren of current and former troupe members wedged among works by the company’s resident choreographers. Included on the bill are pieces by Dwight Rhoden, Mark Diamond, Sasha Janes, David Ingram, Sarah Hayes Harkins, David Morse, Gregory Taylor, and Josh Hall.

That’s a bunch, to be sure, but three of the works choreographed by current dancers – the “Dancer Spotlight” – are presented in rolling rep, so each evening consists of six pieces. The first two, Rhoden’s “Ballad Unto” and Ingram’s “Omologia,” are staples in every performance of the run. Taken together, they exemplify how Innovative has evolved. Intimacy and chamber size are no longer requisites of new choreography unveiled at the McBride. Both of these pieces were long enough to present on the Knight Theater mainstage, and by the time they were done, we had seen 18 dancers perform, including three up-and-comers from the satellite Charlotte Ballet II company.

Although scenery is still outlawed in this studio setting, lighting has become very sophisticated. In fact, the hard-edge lighting designs by Jennifer Propst are very much at the forefront of both experiences. Further blurring the difference between Knight and McBride presentations, the previously filmed “Behind the Dance” segments, where the choreographers talk about either their aesthetic or the genesis of the piece we’re about to see, are now as much a part of Innovative as they were last October in Fall Works at the Knight.

Innovative Works_Dwight Rhoden_Ballad Unto

Photos by Peter Zay

Rhoden’s “Ballad Unto” sets Bach’s famed Chaconne, prerecorded on violin, upon five couples, yet this destination is preceded by a setting to assorted sounds, textures, and rhythms that seemed equally long and substantial. Jamie Dee Clifton and Josh Hall were the couple that grabbed my attention most dynamically, but Ben Ingel and Raven Barkley were also charismatic standouts. All ten of the performers delighted in both the high-speed handwork and the footwork that Rhoden challenged them with, consistently accenting the beat with precision. Rhoden himself had fresher, livelier ideas than you might expect from him this deep into his career responding to Bach. Propst had a fairly a fairly stunning reaction to the choreography, setting five squares on the floor in an M formation for the five couples, occasionally replacing them with – or superimposing them on – an inverted V.

Interaction between the dancers and Propst’s lighting design was even more salient in Ingram’s “Omologia.” As the eight dancers advanced toward us at the outset of the piece, set to Corelli’s “La Follia,” a bright illuminated line across the stage seemed to daunt their progress. Once the dancers took possession of the stage, we discovered that there would be two more lines of lights connected to the first – and that each of the three lines was actually comprised of three adjacent squares. So while the dancers danced in close sync with the music, the nine pre-programmed squares, blinking on and off, were similarly wed to the movements and the shifting tableaus of the dancers. Numerous permutations of the nine squares flashed before us, including U shapes formed by seven of the squares that opened out at various moments to all four points on the compass.

From these lengthy baroque abstractions, we suddenly transitioned to a very real subject with Harkins’ “#Hatehurts,” the sort of high-concept piece that has typified Innovative in the past. Diagonally across the stage from each other when the lights came up, Sarah Lapointe in the foreground and Ingel upstage sat in front of laptop computers, reacting to online bullying and its fatal consequences. Of the six dances, this was the only one that didn’t come to us paired with a filmed introduction. Sure, it was the piece that least required explanation, but it was also so short that a prelude may only have drawn further attention to the piece’s brevity. Perhaps if the seated opening tableau didn’t seem to be such a substantial portion of the piece, the effect would have been more powerful, for the dance seemed to end as it was just getting started once the couple converged at the middle of the stage. The ratio between the prerecorded bullying and suffering we heard about and the anguish we saw live from the dancers ultimately struck me as too message-rich, an effective presentation for middle schoolers, perhaps, but artistically too thin for me.

John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” served as both title and soundtrack for David Morse’s piece, brilliantly danced by Harkins and Hall. In costuming, lighting, and choreography, Morse divides his work in two. The dancers come on in dim light, Hall in a waistcoat and Harkins in a long flowing blouse. Turning up their intensity, the dancers shed these upper garments as the lights come up fully. This moment of liberation is amplified by the ensuing choreography, which utilizes the entire stage. Morse’s piece returns to the rotation during the evenings of the final weekend of the run, February 18-20. Next weekend, Morse’s spot is taken by Gregory Taylor’s “Requiem of a Meaning,” and Hall shows off his “Social Butterfly” on the third weekend.

Hall will be borrowing rookie dancer Ryo Suzuki for his solo piece. Meanwhile, he is featured in “Yamato, earth/nature/drum,” a three-part celebration of Japan by Diamond, demonstrating that he’s no less eager to pursue new directions than Rhoden. The 12 people in this piece form a spherical mass as Propst’s shimmering lighting comes up, with Suzuki slapped across it horizontally. Then the ball explodes in big-bang fashion to an original score arranged by Rocky Iwashima, heavy with taiko pounding. Ultimately, the group regathers downstage in a tableau that is analogous to the spherical beginning but with Suzuki in an uplifted, triumphal posture. Inside of this effective framing, Suzuki and Addul Manzano are the dominant presences, although Barkley is hard to ignore whenever she’s involved.

Charlotte Ballet Innovative Works by Christopher Record

Photo by Christopher Record

For his new work, “Sketches from Grace,” Janes veered from his intent to create settings for works by Leonard Cohen, opting instead for a four-piece suite of settings to cuts by Jeff Buckley – including his cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which became a posthumous #1 hit for Buckley in 2008. The work showcases a punkish set of costumes by Katherine Zywczyk with faint, silvery highlights, beginning with Buckley’s most distinctive original, “You and I,” a brooding, floating, dreamy song that would seem to defy choreography. Yet Chelsea Dumas and James Kopecky fully conveyed the smoldering energy lurking in the lyric. Once covered by Nina Simone, “Lilac Wine” took the tempo up to a bluesy dirge, given an aching elegance by Ingel partnering with Alessandra Ball James. Bringing the tempo further up to a lethargic shuffle, “Hallelujah” was undoubtedly the climax of the suite, danced with such heartbreaking perfection by Hayes and Hall that the audience applauded as if it were the finale, although Janes’s video intro had promised us that all three couples had a concluding segment together. That closing ensemble was a more driven Buckley original, “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” very appropriate for the hubbub of three couples strutting their stuff simultaneously. Those last pushes in tempo, spectacle, and animation gave the audience one more reason to cheer.