Tag Archives: Jennifer Propst

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.

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

Review:  Peter Pan

By Perry Tannenbaum

Peter Pan 2

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

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

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

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

Nah, I shouldn’t give it away.

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

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

Jean Pierre Bonnefoux's Peter Pan_Elizabeth Truell and Peter Mazurowski_Photo by Taylor Jones_7936-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innovative Works_Yamato_Dancer Ryo Suzuki

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

Innovative Works_Dwight Rhoden_Ballad Unto

Photos by Peter Zay

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Ballet Innovative Works by Christopher Record

Photo by Christopher Record

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