Tag Archives: Hope Muir

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.

 

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.”