Tag Archives: Christopher James Lees

Fall Works Fetes Bernstein and Robbins in Witty Style

Review: Charlotte Ballet Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hope Muir’s second season as artistic director with Charlotte Ballet began very much like her first, with another program titled Fall Works that revived a gem from the company’s existing repertoire while introducing a pair of pieces that were new to the Queen City. It wasn’t as splashy or audacious as last year’s edition, when Muir not only gave us our first sighting of choreographer Javier de Frutos but also delivered the electricity of Tony Award winner Levi Kraus. The 2018 program was merely more polished and more consistently satisfying.

We began with Jerome Robbins’ setting for Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free, the 1944 prototype of On the Town, their joint debut on Broadway later that year. Muir’s company hasn’t staged this work since it was Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s company, NC Dance Theatre, in 2006, but it certainly returned propitiously, in the centenary year of both Robbins and Bernstein. Robbins was celebrated with a full evening of his works at Spoleto Festival USA earlier this year, a fitting tribute since Robbins founded his dance company, Ballets: USA, at the Italian Spoleto in 1968.

That March 2018 celebration in Charleston circles back to Charlotte when you remember that the program of Robbins duets at Spoleto USA replicated one that had been originally staged in Italy in 1973 – with Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride among the elite superstars who danced the pas de deux.

Longtime NYC Ballet stalwart Kipling Houston, who danced Fancy Free on Dance in America back in 1986 during his younger days, staged a very handsome revival, aided by the dreamy original set design by Oliver Smith and the spot-on World War II costumes by Kermit Love – both on loan from Richmond Ballet. What really livened this staging was the live accompaniment by the Charlotte Symphony under the direction of Christopher James Lees

Peter Mazurowski and Juwan Alston were the two sailors on shore leave in NYC who left James Kopecky in the lurch to pursue a bright yellow skirt, otherwise known as Sarah Hayes Harkins. Kopecky didn’t need to lick his wounds for long before Alessandra Ball James sauntered in, working a burgundy dress. The tone got more serious when James popped up, for the sailors engaged in horseplay even before Harkins arrived on the scene – and teased her a bit after they had vied in preening for her.

Harkins was sassier than usual before her first exit, a welcome sign that she’s hungry for this kind of role. As we saw a couple of times during this comedy, Mazurowski and Alston were in cahoots with one another at Kopecky’s expense, but they competed against each other, too, for the arithmetic is obvious when the young men and women reassemble at the bar. Three men were vying for two women’s favors. Each of the men took a turn at making his case. Landing two prodigious splits after high leaps, making me wince both times, Mazurowski definitely impressed me.

The moment of truth, when we expected the ladies to choose their men, turned chaotic and comical as the guys sought to usurp the ladies’ privilege and wound up brawling with one another – in front of and behind the bar. By the time the fisticuffs had concluded, Harkins and James had escaped, leaving all three sailors high and dry. Cue the entrance of Sarah Lapointe, really working it as she sashayed into view for a delicious cameo.

With Sasha Janes taking Bernstein’s music and replacing Robbins’ choreography with a totally new setting, Facsimile showed us more of Bernstein’s symphonic side and gave us a fuller view of the company to start the 2018-19 season. Instead of Robbins’ original love triangle, Janes presented us with a sometimes-surreal seduction, with Harkins trying to perk up the downtrodden, woebegone Kopecky. Listlessly pushing a custodian’s broom, Kopecky found Harkins beaming sympathetically at him.

Daring and precise as she has always been, Harkins seems to be taking a more lithe and spontaneous approach these days, with a new fluidity that makes her even more versatile and formidable than she has been before. As the troubled Lead Man, Kopecky was more troubled than pathetic, exactly the right mix to keep up Harkins’ efforts to puncture his despondency. You want him to be worth her time.

Janes’ Lead Woman suddenly receives backup when an upstage scrim lifts and a colorful gallery of circus characters appear, from Ringmaster and Equestrians to sideshow Fortune Teller and Strong Man, garishly costumed by Jennifer Janes, the choreographer’s mom. Among this motley crew, Drew Grant as the Ringmaster and Amanda Sturt-Dilley as the Fortune Teller were the most vivid diversions, but I couldn’t help ogling Maurice Mouzon Jr. with his barbells and Colby Foss as the Bearded Lady.

None of these fantastics could quite keep Kopecky’s mood levitated though they became a rather bacchanalian carnival when Lees stirred up the orchestral hullaballoo to max volume. They vanished almost as suddenly as they appeared, leaving Harkins one last half-hearted opportunity to accomplish what the circus could not. Here we saw perhaps the best of Kopecky’s performance as he summoned up sufficient ambivalence to justify a hopeful if not happy ending, chiming beautifully with the music.

With his mischievous against-the-grain style, Medhi Walerski and his Petite Cérémonie easily supplied the most fun of the evening. Dancers in mostly black formal attire, designed by Linda Chow, entered a bare stage – some of them processioning up the theater aisles – and formed a strict chorus line upstage, staggered by gender, repeating the same monotonous step. Then as the rapturous, prayerful strains of Bellini’s “Casta diva” played softly in the background, the men and the women moved in regimented unison, often with the men and women assigned different sequences of movement.

Or a couple might break away from the ensemble to perform a brief duet conspicuously devoid of human connection. Creepily enough, there were times when the ensemble’s regimented routines – or even the couple’s movements – were louder than the opera.

It took awhile for the audience to get Walerski’s humor. There was no turning back when Ben Ingel came out and juggled three balls under a boom mic and delivered a disquisition on the difference between male and female brains while Mozart played faintly in the background and other dancers attempted to distract him. The visibly disproven point our juggler made about men’s brains was that they couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing at the same time.

Similar disconnects between the recorded music and the live action persisted in settings of a Benny Goodman Orchestra version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Moon” and a Mozart concerto, finally arriving at a witty obliquity when we reached an excerpt from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The ensemble danced in the same regimented, sometimes robotic style we had seen in previous sections of Petite Cérémonie, but now each of the 15 dancers also moved a white cube along the floor.

When you recognized the music as coming from Vivaldi’s Winter Concerto, you might imagine that the dancers were performing an ice dance, sliding those white cubes along a frozen pond. As the music churned to its conclusion, they piled all those cubes up and struck a pose. In that final tableau, you could imagine that they had built a little ice castle for their backdrop.

 

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

Review : Nutcracker

1718Nutcracker_Chelsea Dumas and Juwan Alson_171208-Photo by PeterZay4286[13]

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.

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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.