Tag Archives: James Kopecky

Choreographic Lab Distills Inventiveness and Energy

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Choreographic Lab

By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 13, 2022, Charlotte, NC – We’ve been seeing plenty from Charlotte Ballet in the past month. Ending April and plunging into May, the company unveiled the world premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic, with choreography by Matthew Hart – a ballet about a sleeping princess that had slumbered for two years prior to its pandemic-postponed awakening. That new piece ran for 11 performances over two weeks at Knight Theater to a trimmed Tchaikovsky score, with no fewer than four Charlotte Ballet dancers playing each of the lead roles, Princess Aurora, Prince Florimund, and the Lilac Fairy. Five days after that run – with plenty of rehearsal during the run, we can presume – another swarm of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II dancers darted to and fro across the studio at the Patricia McBride/Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance for the third edition of Choreographic Lab, also postponed for two years.

Naturally, all seven dances on this fresh program were created and developed in-house, with members of the two Charlotte Ballet troupes trying their hands at choreography, all working with their colleagues at the McBride/Bonnefoux “lab” to bring the new dances to fruition. In more than a couple of instances, new music was created especially for the new works. Giving extra polish to the production, each new dance was preceded by a video in which the choreographer discussed his or her aims and process. Somehow, the idea that Charlotte Ballet was alive and kicking became even more intense than with even the long-dormant Tchaikovsky ballet, for now the sounds and the styles were more contemporary.

The trio of new pieces before intermission was especially impressive, two of them featuring new music, one performed live by the composer. “Movement in 3” was accurately described by choreographer Maurice Mouzon Jr. as a “neoclassical work with a groove,” for the eight dancers, evenly divided by gender, all wore ballet shoes and costumes, with the women particularly prevailed upon to work en pointe in the opening section to music by Jonny Greenwood that sounded like a Bach partita. After insinuating themselves among the women, the men came to the fore in “Yumeji’s Theme,” music by Shigeru Umebayashi that had an unmistakable waltz-tempo lilt. Most of us were likely wondering where the groove was until we heard Olle Nyman singing “Heart & Soul” as all eight dancers joined in. Then it was unmistakable – and irresistible.

“Mile Marker 123” by Colby Foss would remain my favorite new piece of the evening, largely because it was so completely produced, with lighting, staging, music, and dance unifying so effectively. During most of the dance, Foss had his partner, composer and cellist Ian Cooke, seated center stage, playing and singing his original song, “Sterling.” Surrounding him were nine dancers in symmetrical formations, variously evoking a royal court, a worshipful adoration, or a campfire.

Two couples were deployed on each side of Cooke, and the ninth dancer, a female, stood vigilantly behind him, there to take hold of his cello when the singer stood up and was incorporated into the dance. At this point Cooke himself didn’t dance. The other dancers lifted him up, turned him upside-down, revolved him like the hand on a clock, and then carried him solemnly like a corpse at a funeral before restoring him upstage center to his throne. Very evocative in moody, amber light. The epigraph embedded by Foss in the playbill enjoins us to pay heed to Mother Nature: “Her power brings life and beauty but can just as easily wield chaos and death.”web_1525-9401

Sarah Ingel, who choreographed “Nebulous Reverence,” actually works behind the scenes at Charlotte Ballet as a production assistant – and with femme and queer performance makers across the Southeast. “I practice myth making from a queer and feminist perspective,” she says at her website, but there was no reason to feel threatened by her new work, which has comical and satirical overtones despite the black unisex costuming and Ingel’s explicit intent to project chaos. The three dancers deployed to intensely watch the other three, in the most memorable episode, share a bowl of popcorn as they behold the chaos, before spilling the remainder of the popcorn in their excitement. While you or I wouldn’t describe such reverence as nebulous, it was hard to argue with Ingel’s idea.web_1525-9754

Among the four pieces after intermission, the first and third, Josh Hall’s “Remnants” and Nadine Barton’s “Woebegone,” left the deepest impression. Could be that I’m a sucker for spotlit circles gleaming on a dance floor, for that’s what these works had in common. In Hall’s piece, contiguous circles lit up in a sequence corresponding to the shifts in music, two spare piano recordings by Luke Howard surrounding M Haase’s “Plaything.” Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Meredith Hwang were the first to dance Hall’s intimate choreography, joined by Anna Mains, who shed a frumpy pullover blouse to chime with the summery pink outfits worn by the others. Mains didn’t stop there, shedding her pink skirt with the arrival of Humberto Ramazzina for the final segment. Interaction between the sexes was relatively chaste and innocent, though Ramazzina’s tenderness was unmistakable. His windup probably confounded most expectations as he handed back the clothes that Mains had shed, and she put them back on.

“Woebegone” had a solo dancer, Ben Ingel as Scooter, navigating the spotlit circles, choreographed by Barton to “How Can I Find True Love,” the B-side of the Del-Vikings “Come Go With Me” in 1956. Overdramatizing his woes, decked out in a clown suit, Scooter’s misery was substantially less than Pagliacci’s, particularly when Ingel broke the fourth wall and milked the audience for applause. Barton dressed purposefully for the occasion, coming onstage after the premiere to take her bow in a dominantly black polka dot outfit that echoed Ingel’s clown suit, topped by a vaudevillian black bowler hat and accented by flaming red gloves. Such preening was actually encouraged, it would seem, for Foss took his bow earlier contrasting radically with his partner, sporting a silver dinner jacket as he stood beside Cooke, who remained in his ramblin’ man casuals.

The other two pieces were certainly modern and energetic, reflecting the violence and pandemonium of our times. “Fulfilled Conviction” by James Kopecky fulfilled the choreographer’s desire to stage a jailbreak, featuring a scintillating and charismatic performance from Sarah Lapointe as the fevered action swirled around her – and in pursuit. “Listen to Me (Us)” by Eric Stith III of Charlotte Ballet II, had a surprisingly militant core: “We all want to be heard and seen. Sometimes you have to do that with violence.” Music by Les Tombours du Bronx, “Pneumothorax,” gave the violence a machine-gun battlefield atmosphere rather than the hues of terrorism or protest, and the bright red costumes worn by the dancers were closer to pajamas than blood.

Originally published on 5/15 at CVNC.org

Heretical Fairy-Tailored Format Is a Winner at the Knight

Review: Charlotte Ballet Premieres Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic

By Perry Tannenbaum

Final Dance by Jeff Cravotta

Whether paired with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom onstage, orchestrated by Tchaikovsky for ballet, or adapted by talents as diverse as Walt Disney and Matthew Bourne, Sleeping Beauty isn’t a title that sleeps for long. Between here and Greensboro, the title appeared more than a dozen times on our cultural calendars between 2005 and 2020. So it’s a bit of a shock to find that the Charlotte Ballet’s world premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic, one of the first cultural events in Charlotte to be cancelled with the onset of COVID in March 2020, has slumbered more than two years before finally coming to life.

Actually, it had been more than three years since Charlotte Symphony last played the Tchaikovsky score live at Knight Theater. But not the whole score. Mikhail Pletnev’s benchmark recording with the Russian National Orchestra clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, about 75 minutes longer than the typical Nutcracker performance. So if by “tailored” you were hoping that Charlotte Ballet and choreographer Matthew Hart mean trimmed – substantially trimmed – then you can breathe a sigh of relief.

More exciting, the fairy-tailored concept embraces a format that some balletomanes might find heretical, integrating a spoken narrative with the dance. Obviously, spoken narration invites a more intimate interaction between the performers and the audience, especially the anklebiters that adults may have dragged into Knight Theater with them. But really, what might seem outré to ballet fans is perfectly de rigueur for parents and kiddies attending Symphony’s Saturday morning concerts, drawn to Belk Theater by the lure of Francis Poulenc’s Babar, Serge Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, or similar fare.Nurse Fairies by Jeff Cravotta

Traci Gilchrest-Kubie, portraying little Princess Aurora’s doting Nurse, is our graceful trailblazing narrator. Once upon a time, you may recall, Gilchrest-Kubie was a perennial lead dancer when the company was known as NC Dance Theatre, but she has transitioned within the organization over the past 10 years and now serves as Repetiteur – rehearsal director, if you don’t speak ballet – for both CharBallet and CharBallet II. She has also worked behind the scenes, staging several company productions, as she also does here alongside Charlotte Ballet II director Christopher Stuart.

While the playbill didn’t specify who was responsible for the narrative script, it was worthy of credit, pleasingly spare like Prokofiev’s beloved Peter. Turns out that the nifty narration was co-written by Hart and acting coach Jane Wymark. Ostensibly modeled after Marius Petipa’s original 1890 choreography, Hart allows himself and his dancers some strikingly whimsical moments. Perhaps the most pointed of these came when Rees Launer as Puss in Boots and Meredith Hwang as the White Cat danced their featured pas de deux at Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund’s gala wedding celebration.Aurora Group by Jeff Cravotta

If the tentative meowing music, abruptly segueing into hissing and clawing, sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Disney sacrilegiously applied it to the climactic moment when Sleeping Beauty finds a spindle high up in an abandoned turret of her castle and pricks her finger on it, fulfilling the Evil Fairy Maleficent’s curse. Not to be outdone by Disney’s irreverence, Hart had Puss twerking to that same macabre music.

The magical role of Princess Aurora will be timeshared by no fewer than four dancers between now and the closing May 8 matinee, but that hardly implies that the ballerinas’ burdens have been lightened. Sarah Hayes Harkins, who played Aurora on opening night, was fated to play the title role twice more, but she was also slated to take on Gilchrest-Kubie’s narrative role at three other performances, so she had lines and steps to rehearse. Meanwhile, Harkins’ opening night partner, James Kopecky as Prince Florimund, had two more turns scheduled as Aurora’s destined beau, five as her father the King, and three more as Prince West, one of the marriage prospects presented at the princess’s inauspicious 16th birthday ball.

One of the most rewarding qualities of CharBallet’s extravaganzas, for audiences and dancers alike, continues to be the freedom that the company allows to their principal dancers – encouraging them to bring their own style and personality to each role they play, rather than enforcing a bland and boring sameness. So you’ll find a gratifying individuality to Harkins’ Aurora as she pours regal elegance into her, along with touches of youthful delight, mischief, and a wisp of loneliness. Other Auroras sharing the role (Emerson Dayton, Amelia Sturt-Dilley, and Isabella Franco) might strike you as more nubile, childish, coquettish, or amorous.

As Florimund, Kopecky is almost pathologically sensitive and sincere, an absolute dreamboat for the naïve young fry in the audience, but I expect that Josh Hall, consigned to the role of King on opening night, will stir older libidos when he takes over as the destined Prince, paired with Dayton in her maiden season with CharBallet. Kopecky’s sublimity, on the other hand, chimed well with Harkins’ ethereality – and contrasted deliciously with Colby Foss’s flamboyant rendering of Carabosse, Tchaikovsky’s Evil Fairy.Carabosse 2 by Jeff Cravotta

Of course, the Sleeping Beauty that former CharBallet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux premiered here in 2012 is still deeply embedded in the company’s DNA, so a crossdressing Carabosse won’t be a total shock to loyal subscribers. But Disney’s Maleficent can also be cited as part of the evolution of Hart’s Carabosse. When Tchaikovsky stretched the rather thin storyline to epic length, he largely relied upon celebrations, a Sweet 16 and a wedding piled upon the original christening.

Disney wanted drama, so he didn’t discard Carabosse after the opening scene, or even after the birthday party, where Tchaikovsky began the tradition of having her disguised and smuggling a contraband spindle into the kingdom. No, she is still around a century later, in Disney’s scenario and in Hart’s, barring Prince Florimund from waking his ladylove and providing some sorely needed pushback against the predestined outcome.

Foss’s bravura requires a counterweight that’s stronger than the magically-challenged Florimund, so the Lilac Fairy, “wisest of the Fairies” according to the Nurse, is elevated as much as Carabosse in Hart’s scenario. In fact, with Sarah Lapointe’s sparkle, power, and serenity, you can make the case that Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy are the plum roles in this Fairy Tailored Classic rather than Aurora and Florimund, though Harkins and Kopecky do conquer the most challenging choreography.Court by Jeff Cravotta

Sharing the Lilac gig with three other dancers, Lapointe will actually spend most of this CharBallet run as Aurora’s mom, the Queen. When Foss isn’t making a meal of Carabosse’s malignity, he will trade places with Andrés Trezevant, looking very cavalier on opening night as Catalabutte, the officious and slightly pompous page who presides over every ceremony. While the costumes designed for him by Peter Docherty aren’t nearly as wicked, gnarly and spectacular as Carabosse’s outfits, Trezevant was accorded a wardrobe change after the 100-year intermission, wielding his scepter in a purple-and-blue livery for Aurora’s birthdays before rocking a copper-and-blue ensemble for the wedding.

While Docherty’s scenery is not quite as eye-popping as his costumes, Jennifer Propst’s lighting design dramatically contrasts the daylight of the public celebrations with the moody gloom of the sleeping kingdom and castle. Aside from the dimly lit apparition of the Sleeping Beauty behind a misty scrim, Docherty and Propst combine on a nice effect as the Lilac Fairy’s spell first takes hold. Vines descend dramatically from the fly loft, covering most of the courtyard as we move toward the intermission blackout.

Thanks to the Nurse’s ongoing narrative, there is extra charm to the intermission. Before nodding off in front of the proscenium and slipping away to the wings, Gilchrest-Kubie announced the 20-minute interval and drew our attention to the slowly moving clock projected high over centerstage. Just a single minute hand sweeps clockwise around the clock after the lights come up. Only the clockface has been reconfigured so we’re gradually counting up to 100 like a speedometer, instead of the usual 12 or 60, as Sleeping Beauty’s sleep flies by.

Compared to Aurora’s century-long coma, the two years we’ve had to wait for this Fairy Tailored Classic are nothing to complain about. On the contrary, we have a ballet wakening of our own to celebrate.

Charlotte Ballet Takes Us Back to the Future in Rousing and Meaningful “Innovative 1970”

Review: Innovative 1970 at Center for Dance

By Perry Tannenbaum

Innov1970 gypsy moths photo by Jeff Cravotta

February 4, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Distorted by delay, the title of Charlotte Ballet’s latest program sounds more like an oxymoron than ever. Innovative 1970 was originally designed to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, but COVID intervened in all our lives so that the official celebration couldn’t be staged until October 2021, already 51 years after the original troupe was formed in Winston-Salem as the North Carolina Dance Theatre. That commemoration included an electrifying revival of The Rite of Spring by Salvatore Aiello, who brought NCDT to Charlotte in 1990. Following that program, the company more predictably reprised The Nutcracker for the holidays, choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who succeeded Aiello as NCDT’s artistic director in 1996 and rebranded the troupe in 2014.

The durably titled Innovative 1970 is thus the first program of all-new pieces since Charlotte Ballet returned to live performances this season and the first to return dancers and subscribers to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, doubly appropriate because 1970 was adopted as the creative trigger for all three newly commissioned pieces on the program, choreographed by Andrés Trezevant, Rena Butler, and Ja’ Malik.

Innov1970 What was it for Photo by Jeff CravottaAppropriate to its Vietnam War theming, Trezevant’s “What Was It For?” arrived for its premiere as a partial amputee, for the beginning of the scenario in the printed program, where war protesters make houses out of draft cards, is MIA – along with the conspicuous absence of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets (1974).” What remained thrust us into middle of warfare, Julie Ballard’s lighting design turning the floor of the Center for Dance’s black box into camo splotches of green and gray, while a house of cards lingered downstage, now a cryptic relic of the original concept. A quaint portable radio was spotlit near the opposite wing, likely another leftover, but it remained functional, emitting only white noise as five male dancers, dressed as soldiers, populated the stage, simulating scenes of combat, capture, escape, and rescue.

We were clearly – and perhaps angrily – back home, when Maurice Mouzon Jr. subsequently performed a dashing solo to Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues (1967).” The two women in this piece, Sarah Lapointe and Anna Mains, arrived onstage as healers while the scene brightened somewhat. Now the returning soldiers – Colby Foss, Ben Ingel, James Kopecky, and Rees Launer – were presumably in hospitals and rehab, dealing with mental and physical trauma in the grim aftermath of a futile war. I suspect that the house of draft cards was intended to fall at the end, but it remained standing.

Innov1970 Subliminal Tsunami photo by Jeff Cravotta

Subliminal Tsunami by Rena Butler, with original music by Daniel J. Hoffman, was a more acerbic and satirical piece that took 1970 as a checkpoint on the state of women’s rights and horizons, compared with where they are today. Recorded voices of Gloria Steinem, Nikki Giovanni, and ABC News anchor Marlene Sanders were in the colloquium, intermingled with recorded voices of seven Charlotte Ballet dancers delivering their own personal accounts. Sharply contrasting with this dignified discussion was what we saw onstage, five women dancers coldly confined by Ballard’s lighting into five squares. The stiffness of Lapointe, Raven Barkley, Isabella Franco, Sarah Hayes Harkins, and Amelia Sturt-Dilley, dressed in matching costumes by Kerri Martinsen, clearly identified them as a collection of Barbie dolls, handled dutifully by four men – Foss, Ingel, Launer, and David Preciado.

Only occasionally did the voices compete with the dancers for attention as the piece proceeded, giving the dancers more latitude for movement. No doubting that the black box’s sound system sorely needs an overhaul, OK for rehearsals but not suitable for prime time. It was still a bit stinging to listen to the cautions against following your impulses issued to young girls contemplating a future of homemaking. Lamentably, the pace of progress for women has been mostly subliminal, not at all a tsunami, though cumulatively we have evolved substantially since 1970, and more progress can be perceived if we look back to when women gained the right to vote 50 years earlier. While I was bothered to see the dancers still masked in 2022, Butler had an ingenious way of coping with the situation: Big smiley, lipsticked mouths on Martinsen’s matching flesh-colored masks were clearly and effectively part of the women’s design.Innov1970 gypsy moths 2 photo by Jeff Cravotta

After the traumas of war and the indignities of gender inequality, it was refreshing to return after a second intermission to gypsy moths, Ja’ Malik’s joyous celebration of funk rockers LaBelle and their frequent collaborator Laura Nyro. A teeming cast of five men and five women, all in spangled masks, converged on the floor for “Met Him on a Sunday,” Nyro’s 1971 cover of a song introduced by The Shirelles thirteen years earlier, and “Come Into My Life,” introduced on LaBelle’s Chameleon album in 1976. “Gypsy Moths,” introduced on the same LaBelle album, paired the company into five couples Emily Porter with Kopecky, Harkins with Humberto Ramazinna, Shaina Wire with Josh Hall, Emerson Dayton with Preciado, and Barkley with Mouzon.

It wasn’t until the ensuing three songs that it became clear that Barkley and Mouzon were the alpha couple of Malik’s piece, for Barkley was obviously the lead in “The Wind” and Mouzon was unquestionably the alpha male in “Going on a Holiday,” both backed by the full cast. Neither of these ensemble segments was as special or memorable as Malik’s seething setting of “Been on a Train,” the whole stage cleared for a slithering Barkley-Mouzon pas de deux. “Desiree,” taken from Nyro’s 1971 Gonna Take a Miracle album was only slightly anticlimactic, a glittery showcase for the other four women, and “What Can I Do for You” was a stirring finale for the entire cast, so infectious that it roused rounds of rhythmic clapping from the audience. The ovation when the spectacularly dressed Malik joined the dancers onstage was even more raucous.

Originally published on 2/5 at CVNC.org

Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Is Luxuriously Long and Varied, Culminating in a Sizzling “Rite of Spring”

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

ROS Rehearsal Photo

Sitting next to an audience member I’d never met before and conversing with her, thanks to the COVID vaccines and to our vaccination cards that had been scrupulously checked in the Belk Theater lobby, I could share her excitement in being back to see the Charlotte Ballet, out in public without pods or social distancing, and enjoying live performance in a real audience for the first time in nearly 19 months. Even though we were all masked – discarding social distancing seems to increase our tendency to take this precaution seriously – my wife Sue and I felt a distinct residue of wariness.

Yet my trepidations must be an infinitesimal fraction of the wariness anti-vaxxers maintain toward getting vaccinated and an infinitesimal fraction of the daily risks they’re willing to take. Trusting that the people sitting next to you and the people checking them are trustworthy was a calculated leap of faith, my first occasion of sitting next to a stranger since March 2020, so I could understand why the upper tiers at Belk Theater were empty for Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, and why the orchestra and Grand Tiers weren’t teeming to capacity.

Gathering us together for their big celebration after two postponements, Ballet didn’t shrink from keeping us together, offering us a longer and more varied program than we’ve seen in many a season. More than that, they welcomed Christopher Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony to the pit (have we ever seen him down there before?) to perform a Philip Glass piece and brought four masked Symphony principals onstage to fuel a performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet. With the exception of Salvatore Aiello’s electrifying setting for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the program didn’t find Charlotte Ballet in a retrospective mood.

Christopher Stuart, the new Charlotte Ballet II program director, jumped into the fray first with a new piece, “Then, Now, Forever,” set to the live Glass. Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, whose work has been featured at Spoleto Festival USA on a couple of occasions dating back to 2009, made an edgier Charlotte debut with “A Picture of You Falling,” paired with the Stuart piece before the first of two intermissions. Framed by the two intervals, Val Caniparoli appeared in Charlotte for the first time with Ibsen’s House, interestingly set to the Dvořák. All of these choreographers were present for the celebration – except for Aiello, the former North Carolina Dance Theatre artistic director who died in 1995 at the age of 51.

TROS Young Warrior

The company itself, launching season 51, looked no less fresh and new, especially with etoile Sarah Hayes Harkins happily sidelined on maternity leave. No less than five dancers were taking their first steps as new members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II, including two Isabellas, Franco and Bertellotti, who are time-sharing a role in the three performances of Ibsen’s House through Saturday. Meanwhile, a trio of seven-year veterans of the troupe; Sarah Lapointe, Raven Barkley, and Amelia Sturt-Dilley; are striding more to the forefront. Lapointe and Barkley struck me as the most arresting presences in Section 1 of the “Then, Now, Forever” suite. Tempo quickened noticeably for Section 2, with newcomers Franco and Emerson Dayton paired with Ben Ingel and Davis Preciado. Easing back to a languid midtempo Section 3, Lapointe poured out her newfound imperious confidence opposite Rees Launer, which made the fast pace of Section 4 that much celebratory, teeming with 10 dancers. Stuart’s choreographic style didn’t startlingly depart from classical models, so his costume design collaboration with Katherine Zywczyk, as well as the dancers, somewhat upstaged him. Backlighting and dramatically silhouetting the famously inert Belk Theater organ pipes, lighting designer Jeff Emory made them useful for the first time in their ignominious history.

Standing spotlights were the scenery for Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling,” surrounding Sturt-Dilley and Andrés Trezevant in a semi-circular formation as the tenuously connected couple performed to Owen Belton’s original 2008 music and Pite’s cold, emotion-free text. We are perhaps invited, without any cordiality, to identify with this brief deconstructed romance, first from Trezevant’s point of view as he faced himself and the repetitive emptiness of his life. Eventually, we escape from this spiral as Pite takes us to the moment where he literally bumps into Sturt-Dilley.

Flirtation and courtship do not figure on this island of light in Pite’s pitch-black universe, so when Trezevant is shown falling, the effect is from gravity rather than love – “This is you falling,” “This is you collapsing” – and his heart literally hits the floor rather than filling with passion. Sturt-Dilley seemed to take over the lead, drawing our empathy for a while, as the little chronicle climaxed at “The Place,” with a light hint that what’s happening, as the two are engaged in their pas de deux, isn’t happening to him. “This is how it happens” transitioned swiftly, without the luxury of regret, “to this is how it ends” after repeated, obsessive descriptions of the room, something like a Last Year in Marienbad video loop or some classically gloomy Ingmar Bergman. Repeated collapses followed, and the falling featured some slo-mo and freeze-frame touches reminiscent of The Matrix.

We haven’t seen any Ibsen from our local theatre companies in Charlotte since a lackluster production of A Doll’s House in 1999, so Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House figured to be a bad mismatch with the Queen City’s theatre tastes, theatre history, and local theatre professionals outside UNC Charlotte, where they presumably remember that the Norwegian is revered as the father of modern drama. Caniparoli showcased five oppressed Victorian women, including the heroines from Ghosts, Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, and the title character of Hedda Gabler. Yet it would be irresponsible for me to recommend catching up with these scripts, for there was little from Dayton and Ingel that reminded me of feminist icon Nora Helmer, insensitive ingrate husband Torvald, and A Doll’s House – or anything at all from Lapointe as Hedda, Josh Hall as George Tesman, Sturt-Dilley as Mrs Alving, and Peter Mazuroski as her son Oswald that awakened memories of Gabler or Ghosts, the other Ibsen staples in Caniparoli’s gallery that I’ve seen. Dayton captured Nora’s early timidity beautifully and Lapointe had a steely resoluteness that was almost intimidating, yet we never found ourselves in the vicinity of the notorious endings of their dramas. Scenic and costume designer Sandra Woodall is best in evoking this strait-laced and corseted era, and Caniparoli excels brilliantly in choreographing the Dvořák, whose 1887 quintet was completed between the times that Ghosts and Hedda Gabler premiered.

Sarah Lapointe in TROS

Having already previewed The Rite of Spring, we need not dwell on the fire and fury of Lapointe as The Chosen One – other than to say that Lapointe didn’t disappoint and completely owned the sacrificial maiden’s every move (Sturt-Dilley dances the role on Friday and Lapointe returns Saturday). Lapointe upstaged and literally towered over everyone else in sight, but the clash between Ingel as the Old Chieftain and James Kopecky as the Young Warrior was primal, intensely physical, and thrilling. Presiding over everything with a shamanistic presence as the curtain went up was Nadine Barton as the Earth Figure, a grand coming out for her in her third year. About the only clear reminder we had all evening of concessions we’re still making to COVID was the absence of live winds, brass, and percussion blaring forth and flailing away at Stravinsky’s score in the orchestra pit. Representing the Salvatore Aiello Trust, curator Jerri Kumery brought the spirit of the choreographer into the hall, and the 17 dancers onstage kept the temperature of his work white-hot.

King of Pop Invades Popo in “Leonce and Lena”

Review: US premiere of Leonce and Lena

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.

Divinity, Orgy, and Terror Are Excitingly Mixed into Charlotte Ballet’s “Spring Works”

Review:  2018 Charlotte Ballet’s “Spring Works”

By Perry Tannenbaum

Spring is always considered a season of growth and renewal, and at Charlotte Ballet, where Hope Muir is completing her first year as artistic director, that old maxim was explosively confirmed on opening night of Ballet’s Spring Works at Knight Theater. Indications were strong that Muir and the company had turned a corner with the triumphant American premiere – after a one-night postponement – of Javier de Frutos’s The Most Incredible Thing in early March, reaffirming that CharBallet could take on bigger challenges and fill anybody’s shoes. The current sequel has brought in Bryan Arias, Helen Pickett, and Filipe Portugal, three choreographers the company had never presented before, and a rousing reprise of Ohad Naharin’s masterful Minus 16 suite.

The evening began with the splendid partnering of Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall in Pickett’s “Tsukiyo,” premiered by Boston Ballet in 2009. Having watched The Shape of Water on a flight from Rome the previous morning, I saw a common thread between the Oscar-winning film and Pickett’s pas de deux, which is set to Arvo Pärt’s Speigel im Speigel. Both have the look of an amorous encounter between the human and the divine. James emerged from a mist like Botticelli’s Venus, supremely elegant and graceful, radiating a regal and divine assurance.

Hall approached her with worshipful awe, initially repulsed by the goddess, but he didn’t flee, continuing to circle her with awestruck wonder. Somehow Hall, who is the title character of the piece (and a god) as far as I could determine, wasn’t upstaged by James’s perfection. After starring as Leo the Creator in The Most Incredible Thing, Hall may have given an even richer characterization here, often curving his body to a picture of humility, yet strong and worthy of the goddess in those few moments when she yielded to him. The chemistry was profound, meshing beautifully with the music. Costumes by Charles Heightchew and lighting by John Cuff enhanced the magic.

In the wake of this powerful intensity, the next two pieces, both in their world premiere presentations, were comparatively abstract. Set to generous selections from the “Tirol Concerto” by Philip Glass, Portugal’s “Stepping Over” shuttled from fast to slow and back to fast in classic style. Action, divided among eight couples, was lively in the fast sections, most effectively in the final movement, where the music has a ragtime flavor. But I most enjoyed the slower middle movement with its style and grace.

Costume design by Christopher J. Parker detracted from the overall impression, barely transcending workout togs, matching blue outfits for the three lead couples and teal for the others. Hall and James made fairly quick costume changes into blue, each taking on a new partner, Chelsea Dumas and Drew Grant respectively, but it was hard for me to take my eyes off Sarah Hayes Harkins. Eclipsed and maybe a little enervated for much of the 2017-18 season, Harkins regained all her old sparkle and precision paired with James Kopecky, dancing with a new joy and rejuvenated spirit. An impressive North American debut for Portugal.

The only true intermission came after “Stepping Over,” though the program booklet deceptively places another one after the world premiere of “When Breath Becomes Air” by Arias. With more time devoted to ensemble movement, dancers were more detached and impersonal in the Arias piece than in the Pickett. Yet there was something more conceptual going on, since Arias has set his dance to Six Breaths by Ezio Bosso. As his title hints, part of Arias’s intent was the give physical shape to the invisible. All-white costumes by Márian Tatán heightened the molecular quality of the ensemble’s motion. Arias seemed to break away from that mold in the midsections of the piece, breaking down his ensemble into four different couples. Perhaps because these couples came on an evening that was already highlighted by the exploits of James and Hall, I was more enchanted by the trio of Colby Foss, Lexi Johnston, and Harkins.

Lights come up at Knight Theater after the Arias piece and the curtain comes down, but you shouldn’t leave the hall. Naharin’s piece explores the sometimes-ambiguous borderlines between playfulness and madness in a society under constant threat of terrorism. The most famous part of the Israeli choreographer’s Minus 16 is where he sets the Tractor’s Revenge modernization of a Passover song for a tightly regimented group of dancers who curve from one side of the stage to the other, mostly sitting and moving on chairs as “Echad Mi Yode’a” cycles from one to 13 in much the same fashion as “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Naharin brought this part of the piece to the Carolinas when his Batseva Dance Company made its Spoleto Festival USA debut in 2007. But the first complete performances of the suite in the Carolinas came at Knight Theater in 2012 when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre brought it to town in 2012 – on their way to presenting it at Spoleto. Charlotte Ballet latched onto the piece in 2016 with smashing success.

The encore presentation seemed even better. While the lights were up for “Intermission,” Kopecky came out for his solo, a potpourri of spasmodic, graceful, and acrobatic movement – mixed with stony motionlessness and paranoid scrutiny of the audience. Of course, the sensation of all this wackiness increased as audience members returned from the lobby to discover it. (Maurice Mouzon Jr., who originated this role in 2016 while still a member of Charlotte Ballet II, will do this solo on the evening of April 27 and at an April 28 “family matinee” which will omit “When Breath Becomes Air.”)The curtain rose and fell many times during Minus 16, most shockingly when we suddenly see the “Echad Mi Yode’a” tableau, where costumes resemble those worn by ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews.

Primed by Kopecki’s antics, the audience was inclined to laugh at the end of each refrain, where a wave of prayerful motion sweeps from left to right, to Hebrew words that translate as “One is our God,” capped by one solitary man who explodes from his chair and falls face down onto the stage. It’s only when the ensemble’s collective actions grew crazier, all of them shedding an article of clothing in each refrain, that the laughter subsided – perhaps with the realization that the fallen man was a victim of a terrorist bomb. Maybe the sight of ultra-orthodox Jews tossing off their hats was their cue.

Amazingly, the chaos of clothing strewn across the stage gave way to frantic joy as the borderline was crossed once more to energetic, orgiastic celebration. All of the dancers eventually came out into the audience, as “Over the Rainbow” poured from the loudspeakers, and picked out members of the crowd who came back with them onstage. It really got crazy when the stage filled up again, as a block party broke out to the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” and Dean Martin’s iconic “Sway.” Joy, laughter, and escape were fully consummated.

 

UNC Doctors Do No Harm in Charlotte Ballet’s “Shakespeare Reinvented”

Review:  Innovative Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Charlotte Ballet's Innovative Works 2019

When Shakespeare wrote his plays four centuries ago, he knew the word “ballet” – but not as we do. Back then, he used the word interchangeably with “ballad.” So yes, the man of so many words knew about dance, spoke about it over a hundred times in his works, but he was far more preoccupied with music and song. Collaborating with a couple of theatre heavyweights from UNC Charlotte, distinguished Shakespeare professor Andrew Hartley and department chair Lynne Conner, Charlotte Ballet is bridging the gap in their latest Innovative Works program at the Patricia McBride & Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance.

With Unsex Me Here, choreographed by Stephanie Martinez, and Let Be by Peter Chu, Shakespeare Reinvented seeks to wed ballet with the Bard. It’s not an unheard-of idea, but it is an unusual one.

Truly reinventing Shakespeare sets the bar higher than merely blending, of course, and it’s Martinez and Connor who take on that challenge most aggressively. Their core idea is that Shakespeare’s universe is male-dominated, as evidenced in such titles as Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, or Antony and Cleopatra. What would it be like to see that script flipped?

Martinez and Connor select four Shakespearean couples and give it a go. Some of the segments pair the couples as you would expect, Juliet with Romeo, Titania with Bottom, Lady Macbeth with Macbeth, and Kate with Petruchio. But each of the women, starting with a devastating Alessandra Ball James as Lady M in a devilish jumpsuit designed by Aimee J. Coleman, gets a solo spot – and so do the demoted heroes. At regular intervals, the men dance as a group, yet it seemed that more time was devoted to the women and their sorority.

Coleman’s costumes, along with a few props, served to differentiate between the characters. Twin panels with studio mirrors were the only scenery on the bare Center for Dance stage, most effective when the guys rolled them apart and, aided by JP Woodey’s lighting, the ladies made a dramatic upstage entrance.

Projected on the flipside of the mirrors – or prerecorded and delivered through the loudspeakers – text from the plays helped to orient us, and the soundtrack composed and constructed by Johnny Nevin and Peter de Klerk was heavily freighted with music by Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi to complete our time travels.

With so much sound and design necessary to orient us in the worlds of four Shakespearean couples, you may be dubious about how much a choreographer and her dancers can do to reinvent them. Other quibbles arise when men and women gather – presumably from different eras and countries – with no observable upshot or takeaway. Are we really contemplating gender when we watch a fairy queen cavorting with a donkey, or are we simply revisiting A Midsummer Night’s Dream and having some fun?

Martinez and Coleman definitely set the women free from their traditional moorings, particularly James as Lady M and Amelia Sturt-Dilley as Kate. If you’ve seen or studied Macbeth, you’re likely aware that the “unsex me here” quote comes from a Lady M soliloquy where she is steeling herself to commit regicide with her husband and seize the throne of Scotland. Perhaps less familiar is the quote gleaned from The Taming of the Shrew, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” It comes from early in the first dialogue that Katherine has with Petruchio, shortly after he has obtained her father’s consent to take her hand in marriage – with a sizable dowry to go along with the prize.

Belying her customary wildness – downright frowziness in some productions I’ve seen – Sturt-Dilly is rather dazzlingly dressed, intimidating in a whole new way. Nothing comical or witty remains here to remind us of the male-female sparring that often enlivens Shakespeare’s comedies. Instead, Martinez channels all of the comedy into the Titania-Bottom encounter, as Sarah Lapointe vamps Peter Mazuroski to the tunes of a medley sung by Judy Garland from her iconic Judy at Carnegie Hall album. We can assume that we’re not seriously contemplating gender when Garland is crooning “For Me and My Gal.”

Clad in a simple summer dress, I mistook Sarah Hayes Harkins for Kate at first, but the rose she carries, referencing Juliet’s signature “that which we call a rose would smell as sweet,” should be a giveaway. Harkins gets to do some rather audacious stuff that we would not expect of a demure young teen, most notably when she brushes the flower across Ball’s hand and produces the large bloody spot that Lady M obsesses over so famously.

Charlotte Ballet's Innovative Works 2019

Clocking in at an expansive 44+ minutes, Unsex Me Here was richly enjoyable and never struck me as an academic or PC rehab of these familiar men and women. Yes, it’s true that the guys – even Bottom – were deemphasized, but there was no detectable condemnation or belittlement. Aside from Mazurowki, who got to wear the donkey ears, the most characterful men were Ben Ingel as a soulful Romeo and Drew Grant as a somewhat malevolent Macbeth. No longer tasked to tame Kate and not visibly intimidated by her, it was hard to discern what was driving James Kopecky in his portrayal of Petruchio.

The Chu approach in Let Be, following the development of Hamlet’s character rather than his story, promised to be intriguing when I read the program notes. As the piece unfolded, I found it hard to connect anything I saw from Juwan Alston as the royal Dane with any developmental scheme whatsoever. Costume designs by Chu were a dreary gray and Woodey’s lighting wasn’t intended to dispel the gloom. Nor was the New Age musical score typified by Ólafur Arnalds’ “Nyepi.” Amorphous pods or globs were scattered across the stage when the lights came up, coalescing into a monkish Oriental style when dancers bloomed from them.

Instead of Ophelia, Horatio, the usurping King Claudius, or even Hamlet’s spectral father, these were the shades that surrounded our troubled prince. When the ensemble sprouted pomegranate-colored fans, they snapped them open and shut in unison. Only by reciting lines from the most recognizable soliloquies could we know that Alston was Hamlet. Pitted against performances of these greatest hits that you may have seen onstage or on film by great Shakespearean immortals – or your 11th grade English teacher – Alston fares as you might expect. Wisely, nobody is asking him to ascend into those heavenly spheres of eloquence, so there’s a vulnerable student simplicity to his speeches.

If no amazing synthesis or revelation emerges in Shakespeare Reinvented, there are no pretentious or stupid faux pas either, probably because these two talented choreographers didn’t allow their academic partners to get inside their heads – or their art. The dancers embrace the project with an enthusiasm that matches their talents, so the result constantly bristles with excitement and electricity.

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.

 

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

Review : Nutcracker

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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.

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.