Tag Archives: Josh Hall

“Spring Works” Delights With Sensuous, Satirical, and Classic Vibes

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works

IN Cognito by Taylor Jones-1

By Perry Tannenbaum

Go figure. On opening night of Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works, the most famous choreographer on the program wasn’t listed in the program booklet. Nor was his dance repeated at the next three performances after the Friday opening. Unless you noticed the insert inside your program booklet, you never did know that Merce Cunningham, who would have been 100 years old on April 16, was the mystery choreographer of the night. Or that Anson Zwingelberg, Charlotte Ballet’s representative at a Centennial Celebration at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on that night, was the dancer who repeated his performance from the special “Night of 100 Solos” gala.

For those of us who did eventually discover the insert, then looked up the celebrations – in London, Brooklyn, and LA – and tracked down the Vimeo replays of the live streams, most of the mystery was solved, except for the title of Zwingelberg’s solo. Others who freewheel their spectating without consulting their programs might still be puzzling the connection between what Zwingelberrg did and the Opus.11 pas-de-deux that followed.

With my program spread out before me, I knew instantly that I wasn’t watching Alessandra Ball James or Josh Hall, respectively in their 13th and 7th years with the company and listed as the partners in David Dawson’s Opus.11. Completing his second year, Zwingelberg is best remembered for his villainous Karl in The Most Incredible Thing last March. He wore a costume then. Although credits for designing Zwingelberg’s attire were given to Reid Bartelme and Helene Jung, your initial impression of their handiwork might be to assume that Zwingelberg had escaped from a work prisoners’ detail along the margins of I-77.

In his brightly colored jumpsuit – somewhere in the neighborhood of mauve, DayGlo orange, and Band-Aid – Zwingelberg performed one of Cunningham’s less dancelike solos. Arm, hand, and leg movements had an eccentric inward quality to them, occasionally endearingly comical, emphatically anti-musical, and occasionally spasmodic and crazy. A formal onstage introduction of some kind would have helped, to be sure, although it would likely have been nearly as long as the solo.

Opus11-1

Described as a “love letter” to Dawson’s two collaborators, dancer/costume designer Yumiko Takeshima and dancer/choreographic assistant Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, Opus.11 was unmistakably about love. Greg Haines’ hypnotic music and Dawson’s intimate lighting cast a nocturnal spell, more than sufficient to rekindle the chemistry between James and Hall. It should be familiar to CharBallet subscribers by now. If you’ve forgotten their man-goddess pairing at last year’s Spring Works, they’ve been Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in Nutcracker and Peter Pan and Wendy in the meantime.

For James to reach such depths of sensuous surrender in a dance, she must trust Hall completely when she lets go. Years of dancing together have built a confidence in James that now appears to be absolute, so it’s really exquisite to see them so sinuously, emotionally, and fearlessly in action. It probably didn’t hurt that Coumes-Marquet himself was on hand to stage and rehearse this satisfying piece.

Helen Pickett, the choreographer who paired James and Hall so effectively last spring in her “Tsukiyo,” returned with the world premiere of a more complex work, IN Cognito. Dedicated to Blowing Rock native Tom Robbins with a title inspired by Villa Incognito, one of his later novels, Pickett plays with the idea of performers hiding behind their roles – yet exposing their true selves. Lighting by Les Dickert and costumes by Charles Heightchew evoked the brightness of 60’s and 70’s décor, yet there was regimentation and repetition in the early ensemble action that made me think Pickett had something pungent to say about peer groups and humdrum workplaces.

IN Cognito by Taylor Jones2-1

The 10 performers, including special guest Robert Plant, executed their impersonal dance moves amid innocuous furnishings. A couch, complementary ottomans, floor lamps, descending window frames and ceiling lamps defined a domesticated indoor space where people interacted without really connecting. Satire? Music by Oscar-nominated Jóhann Jóhannsson and Mikael Karlsson occasionally heightened the urgency of this dance but didn’t warm up its cold vibe. When the couch was put into service as a runway, the dancers briefly took flight.

Reprising Johan Inger’s Walking Mad, CharBallet recalled artistic director Hope Muir’s triumphant arrival in the fall of 2017, when this was the opening work on her first program. Premiered at Nederlands Dans in 2001, toured by Alvin Ailey, and staged by an international who’s who of companies, Walking Mad can be anointed a classic even if Inger’s name still isn’t a household word. It features nine dancers in moods ranging from giddy silliness to deep despair – and a very versatile wall – mostly dispelling the obsessive spell of Maurice Ravel’s famed Bolero.

Replacing Ryo Suzuki, who launched the piece in 2017, Maurice Mouzon Jr. made his entrance from the Knight Theater orchestra pit, dressed in a drab overcoat and a Magritte bowler hat, the first of numerous bowlers we would see. No music yet, wall only dimly evident in the gloom. Mouzon and Sarah Hayes Harkins would dominate the pre- and post-Bolero moments, the first in silence and the moody finale set to Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina.” Withdrawn and grumpy, Harkins wouldn’t accept Mouzon’s coat, letting it drop to the ground.

The first uptick in intensity comes as the simple wall springs to life, plowing Mouzon towards us. Then the mood also begins to shift when there’s a breakout of silent vaudeville comedy at opposite ends of the wide wall, our first visual confirmation that other dancers are conspiring in the comedy. Silent film comedy, you might say, appropriate for when Bolero was premiered in 1928. Doors appear in the wall. Another uptick: Men dressed in dopey maroon party hats begin to chase around and through the wall. Women in similar hats, looking equally dopey, join the party.

We tend to forget – or not even know – that Ravel’s Bolero actually began as a ballet. But not like this!

Abruptly, the wall was bent into a perpendicular shape, the music was muted, and Elizabeth Truell dominated the enclosure, by turns unresponsive, terrified, and violent toward the men who tried to reach her. She was clearly the maddest of Inger’s walking mad, conceivably in an isolation ward, and most bizarre when she and her partners suspended themselves in the corner of the half-folded wall. Slamming all three of his dancers against the wall in this segment, the choreography had a sprinkling of French apache as we awaited the return of the Bolero.

Walking Mad-1

The logic seemed to be that the music returns to full volume when Truell peeps over the top of the wall, but that logic didn’t hold in this surreal world. Gradually the music and the snare drum’s tattoo returned. After an old vaudeville mirror shtick early on, Ingel had laid part of the wall down like a palette and turned it into a slightly elevated dance floor. Now the whole wall came down, and in a Kafkaesque sequence, the former partyers all returned in Magritte bowlers, dancing in manic unison rather stumbling glee. in the process, the mob tormented Mouzon, tossing off their overcoats as Bolero roared to its end.

Applause inevitably greeted that wild moment, although Mouzon remained spotlit downstage awaiting Pärt’s wan piano sonata to cue up. With business between Mouzon and Hayes centering on his coat once again, the two dancers came marginally closer to connecting. If Mouzon had strengthened and persisted in his overtures for an hour or so, the diffident Hayes might have relented a bit, but the young man didn’t have that kind of resolve.

You could have called Mouzon’s exit Chaplinesque if it had a sunnier energy – or any true animation, though he did scale to the top of the wall and balance himself there. Instead of jumping or throwing himself off the edge, Mouzon merely leaned forward and fell out of sight. Classic.

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.

 

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.

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

Review:  Rite of Spring: Reinvented

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a Disconcerting Alarm, Charlotte Ballet’s “Most Incredible Thing” Runs Like Clockwork

Review:  The Most Incredible Thing

By  Perry Tannenbaum

After watching the YouTube video of choreographer Javier de Frutos’ adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Most Incredible Thing in its original 2011 Sadler’s Wells production, I had to wonder how much of this dazzling spectacle Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir could deliver at Knight Theater. Although villainous Karl the Destroyer was danced by Ivan Putrov in London with devastating panache, and Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess – offered along with half the kingdom by her father, The King, to the creator of the most incredible thing – was a marvel of spasmodic anguish, I had little doubt that their American counterparts, Anson Zwingelberg and Chelsea Dumas, would shine as brightly. My doubts centered on Knight Theater itself.

Incorporating so many movable set pieces by Katrina Lindsay (who also designed costumes), studded with challenging video installations to accommodate film and animation by Tal Rosner, The Most Incredible Thing would test the Knight’s capabilities beyond anything I’d witnessed there since the facility opened in 2009, including The Aluminum Show, Momix, Avenue Q, and Peter and the Starcatcher. To be honest, The Most Incredible Thing is more collaborative and ambitious than most full-length ballets or even new operas, for it has so much more baked into it than the de Frutos choreography and an original score by the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Film and animation have to be delivered – onto screens and scrims – with even more pinpoint accuracy than the dancing.

Ominously, the opening night performance and the ensuing Saturday matinee were canceled “due to mechanical failure.” Announcements appeared at the Charlotte Ballet website, on the company’s Twitter account, and on their Facebook page – the latter time-stamped at 5:07pm on the evening of the performance. So until I took my seat at the Saturday evening performance, I really hadn’t known that I was attending the opening night of the American premiere of The Most Incredible Thing. An usher delivered the news instead of Charlotte Ballet’s PR rep. There was a bit more tension and drama to this performance than I had anticipated!

As it turned out, the most significant modifications that I noticed in Act One appeared to result from deliberate changes by de Frutos to his choreography and Zwingelberg’s approach to Karl. In contrast with Putrov’s charismatic take on Karl, reminding me of vintage Baryshnikov and Lucas Steele’s recent Broadway portrayal of Prince Anatol in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Zwingelberg was more angular and Machiavellian, his eyes blackened to emphasize his menace. Yet perhaps nodding to the fact that his piece now occupies a slot in Charlotte Ballet’s season normally filled by such fairy fluff as Cinderella and Peter Pan, de Frutos has softened Karl somewhat so that he no longer brutalizes his henchmen before his abortive attempt to seduce The Princess.

Instead of a talking TV emcee entering with a hand-held microphone, the Charlotte Ballet version has Sarah Lapointe mutely dancing the role in sync with the Emcee’s prerecorded patter. The entire staging of The King’s contest is radically altered, with silhouetted contestants projected on a centerstage scrim and new video supplanting some of the original views of the judges (carried over from the Sadler’s Wells version in its quaint silent film black-and-white). Instead of hundreds of hopefuls vying for The Princess’s hand, the cosmic number of contestants rises well past 10 billion as the video fades out.

All of these alterations work remarkably well, but what brought us more grandly to intermission was the decision to delay the break until after Leo the Creator, already backed and beloved by The Princess, demonstrates his miraculous watch. As the watchmaker, Josh Hall abandons the tortured artist mien of the London protagonist in favor of a more wholesome interpretation – the miraculous watch springs to life from his hands as a phenomenal wonder even to himself rather than as an agonizing pang of giving birth. And the Rosner video, interspersed with live dancing, is an undeniable wonder.

Rising and falling while constantly displaying the steady flow of animations, the huge clock proves to be an electronic video screen rather than a cloth projection screen, maybe the largest circular TV that I’ve ever seen, including the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Blowing away at least half of Andersen’s concept of what each digit on the clock represents, de Frutos and Rosner make it a retrospective of all human history, beginning with Adam as 1 and Eve as 2. Lindsay gets into the act here with skimpier costumes for Adam and Eve that paradoxically supply their full names instead of their initials, and when we reach 4 o’clock, she abets de Frutos’s altered choreography by labeling the dancers’ slacks with the names of the four seasons, adding clarity to the previously abstract episode.

Even as de Frutos contrives to make this Charlotte Ballet version more family-friendly, the watchmaker’s demo grows majestically in power during its second half. Echoing the “Big Spender” number from Sweet Charity, the depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins, also newly labeled, featured seven sultry female dancers – some of whom were actually men in red wigs – with white-gloved “Fosse hands.” Eight was a play on the musical octave that not everyone will catch onto, and 9 o’clock signaled the presentation of prenatal video, referencing the months of pregnancy.

Ten was the last borrowing from Andersen, presenting the Ten Commandments, with ten dancers splayed around Moses shifting their formations as an overhead view of them flashed on the clockface. From there, we blasted off to video of Apollo 11 and man’s first walk on the moon. With a Zarathustra-like swell in the musical score, 12 climaxed Leo’s demonstration by summing it all up – with some 300 names of great artists flashing onto the screen to underscore the overall theme of creation.

Emerging from Knight Theater for the single intermission (three acts have been reconfigured into two), I had no doubt that what I’d already seen far eclipsed the technical sophistication of any show previously presented at that venue. In fact, Matthew Bourne’s ballyhooed adaptation of The Red Shoes, which toured Charlotte back in October at Belk Theater, seemed puny in its technical ambitions by comparison and clumsy in its storytelling. Everything ran with nearly absolute precision at Knight Theater, so it was reasonable to assume that all “mechanical failure” had been conquered. Nor were there any indications that last-minute alterations were necessitated anywhere in Act Two, when Leo’s happily-ever-after victory in the contest was dramatically detoured – but not ultimately destroyed – by Karl the Destroyer. Karl ambushes the lovebirds backstage, seizes and destroys Leo’s miraculous watch, and the contest judges, consulting their rules, have to declare that destroying the most incredible thing is more prizeworthy than creating it.

When the kingdom falls into a desperate gloom after this twist of events, the lighting motif by designer Lucy Carter is still a lurid red, but most of the bloody elements of the video depicting the devastation have been discreetly muted or removed. On the other hand, when the Three Muses who helped inspire the marvelous clock return to rebuild it, they now have supersized scissors to cut the villain into bits and spring Leo from prison. All of this magic and good fortune – with encore video on the big clock – is crowned with a joyous wedding celebration. The regimented citizens who had previously danced robotically back and forth to their places at a long table now tossed confetti with equal precision at the wedding. On Saturday, that was the only hazardous scene in the entire show, for Hall nearly slipped on the confetti afterwards when he trotted out to take his bows.

The battle between divine creativity and brute force plays out beautifully in this edgy extravaganza, the Tennant-Lowe score nearly as nuanced as the de Frutos choreography. In her starring role, Dumas mostly dances hostile pas de deuxs with Karl or her father, relaxing and showing her potential for joy only intermittently with Leo. Her black wedding with Karl is the deepest thing in the piece, for it is here that de Frutos taps into the heart of his scenario, linking the robotic citizens of the despotic kingdom with the incredible watch that might ultimately liberate them. In this black wedding, there are moments when the women circle around the men like arms of a clock, Karl towering above them all, and there’s a sequence when we see couples dancing in place, moving around each other like wooden brides and grooms on a medieval town clock tolling the hour. We were not only seeing a somber variant on the townspeople’s precision movement but a foreshadowing of the miraculous return of Leo’s clock.

The supporting roles were all superbly danced, including Sarah Lapointe as Emcee, Drew Grant as Adam, and Raven Barkley as Eve. Anyone seeing Charlotte Ballet for the first time will not be surprised to learn that each of the Three Muses – Amelia Sturt-Dilley as Concentration, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Love, and Alessandra Ball James as Courage – has danced leading roles for the company in the past. As the kingdom’s drones, Karl’s henchmen, and numerous other cameos, 18 other members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II also populate the stage. Almost as impressive in this complex collaboration, they frequently act as stagehands, setting up, disassembling, or merely reconfiguring scenery pieces and scrims so that this sensory assault never drifts out of sync with the Pet Shop Boys’ prerecorded soundtrack. The Most Incredible Thing may be the most hyped title you’ll ever encounter, but this Charlotte Ballet production often made it seem like a casual description. Despite the alarm of its sudden opening night cancellation, it was running like clockwork the following evening, far more vivid and moving in live performance than on YouTube.

©2018 – CVNC.org

Two-Thirds of Charlotte Ballet’s “Innovative Works” Are Truly Innovative – and Mesmerizing

Review: Innovative Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

What I especially love about Hope Muir’s first season as artistic director of Charlotte Ballet is the new blood she has infused into the choreography, bringing works by Javier de Frutos and Johan Inger to the city for the first time. So it was with considerable excitement that I went to see the 2018 edition of Innovative Works, premiering pieces by Myles Thatcher and Robyn Mineko Williams, choreographers we haven’t seen here before.

Staged at the McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance, where Innovative runs through February 17, both of these new imports triumphed – not only with their bold concepts but in the bravura performances that brought them to life. In between, however, we were subjected to the premiere of “The Weight of Darkness,” a lugubrious and monochromatic work by Sasha Janes that struck me as more inert than innovative. Murky lighting by Burke Brown and all-black costume designs by Aimee j. Coleman didn’t perk things up.

Usually, we can count on Janes to engage us with the sensuous, lyrical, and romantic elements of his work, often with a soupcon of eroticism. But here, commissioned by Angela and Robert McGahan to memorialize Angela’s sister, Irene Ross, Janes goes astray outside his comfort zone. Instead of celebrating Irene’s life, he uses the idea that 4am is the “death hour” as the starting point for his five-part broodings. Of course, the music he has chosen by Nico Muhly and Nico Muhly is neither uptempo nor uplifting.

Chelsea Dumas and Ben Ingel were an attractive couple in the first pas de deux that Janes created for this piece, and the pair of Alexandra Ball James and Josh Hall brought their nonpareil elegance to the second. Trouble was, there was nothing I haven’t seen before in the sequences of ballet moves that Janes doled out to these couples and nothing I’d clamor to see again. In the segments that framed the piece, the four couples of the ensemble only multiplied the tedium.

Perhaps “The Weight of Darkness” wouldn’t have seemed like such a thudding bore if Williams’ “To Clear” hadn’t been so utterly fresh and original. The language of dance movements and the vocabulary of the dancers’ interactions were both striking and new. At the heart of the asymmetrical structure Amelia Sturt-Dilley personified the angularity, restlessness, and urgency of Williams’ concept, appearing at the outset in the most outré of Coleman’s defiantly drab and casual costume designs.

When we first notice Sturt-Dilley perched on a chair, we’re not sure if she’s cautiously settling into it or getting set to flee in terror. Six other dancers, less vividly characterized, ride the wave of the original music score composed by Robert F. Haynes and Tony Lazzera. You might find their synthesis of organic flow with the mechanized pulsations of machines and hip-hop to be a little disconcerting. Fused with the unnatural, yet irresistibly fluid and rhythmic movement of the dancers, it’s just as likely that you will find it mesmerizing and utterly persuasive.

This is who we are, what we’ve become. That’s a strange takeaway from a piece that Williams says started with a thoughtful Bryan Ferry-styled contemplation of a woman, but something else in the choreographer’s filmed intro strikes closer to home. The close, not-quite-connecting interactions between the dancers always seem to deflect them in directions they had not anticipated taking. Totally involving and fascinating.

Concluding the program, Myles Thatcher’s “Redbird” remains abstract, but with Sarah Lapointe brilliantly dancing the title role, there are tantalizing suggestions of a storyline. Coleman dresses Lapointe in a bright red blouse – plus red hoodie, completing the cardinal evocation – that distinguishes her from the other seven dancers until the end when she sheds this plumage. In his intro, Thatcher shares that his choreography was a reaction to “a loss,” a way of processing grief.

Lanterns solemnly brought forth by the other dancers toward the conclusion of the piece may be signaling empathy, so when the redbird sheds her plumage, it’s quite possible she’s accepting their consolation and returning to the fold – and to what she looked like before she was aggrieved. Yet as Lapointe lets herself be absorbed into the group, in a gorgeous ritualistic tableau, there’s no telling for sure whether she has been consoled or coerced. Her outsider color may be unacceptable to the others. Or perhaps it is acceptable for a period of time mysteriously established by tradition.

The process may not work perfectly, but there’s comfort in knowing that you and your tribe are honoring it. And maybe an echo of the agony lingers.

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

Review : Nutcracker

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

When I first heard that Charlotte Ballet would be trotting out its newish Nutcracker down in Charleston before bringing it back to the Belk Theater for its customary two-week run, it struck me as a good thing – spreading the word to South Carolina at the gloriously revamped Gaillard Municipal Center. But I hadn’t considered how the economies of putting the show on the road might affect the product at home. Musicians from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra have been reduced this year from 60 to 35, according to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the Nutcracker choreographer and past Charlotte Ballet artistic director. Furthermore, the mini-chorus that always sang from the orchestra pit in the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” at the end of Act 1 is gone. At least one orchestra member I’ve heard from isn’t pleased by the various transpositions required when you ditch the bass clarinet and are no longer tripling the flutes.

This slimmed-down score comes on the heels of last year’s million-dollar redesign of sets and costumes, austerity following ballyhooed largesse. The new sets sparkle with bright colors at the Stahlbaums’ holiday party in Act 1 and in the Land of the Sweets after intermission. The snow scenes literally glitter in both acts – and the cute little Angels float on a bed of clouds created by nicely tamed fog machines. Yet there was a two-dimensional quality to many of the new props introduced last year that, er, fell flat for me. It began, amusingly enough, with a lifesize cardboard housemaid that was wheeled out to the Stahlbaums’ anteroom and collected all the guests’ hats, coats, and scarves before wheeling back to the wings. But the two-dimensional motif didn’t end there, for the toy soldier that Herr Drosselmeyer brings for Fritz, the creatures that file off into the wings when the clock strikes midnight, the reindeer that peep into the Land of Snow, and Mother Ginger’s house are all pancake flat.

All this flattening muted bustle of the holiday party, which was deprived of the formerly grand arrivals of the Toy Doll and the Toy Soldier in cabinets, caskets, or palanquins. Mark Diamond’s shtick as Herr Drosselmeyer was radically hamstrung, stripped of his former hocus-pocus emceeing for the gift reveals, and while his leave-taking compensates a little for his no-longer-baroque-and-fussy entrance, most of the physical comedy is either gone or has lost its patina. Even the wrench Drosselmeyer used to fix Clara’s broken nutcracker seemed a shadow of its former absurdity. Where the flatness meshes with the new scenic design by Alain Vaës, the result is notably spectacular when the Christmas tree chez Stahlbaum grows to fill the entire upstage. The enchantment doesn’t stop there, for new scenery emerges behind it. Most spectacular, exceeding even Clara’s departure from the Land of Snow (escorted by the victorious Nutcracker), is Clara’s landing in the Land of Sweets below the clouds where the cute little Angels glide.

Worse than the absence of the bass clarinet for the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (a bassoon doesn’t do) or the three flutes for the “Dance of the Reed Pipes” (barely noticeable) were the strings subbing for the mini-chorus. No matter how well they’re played, violins can’t say “Ah!” Under the baton of assistant conductor Christopher James Lees – and under the Belk stage – the Charlotte Symphony filled the hall rather nicely. With Sarah Lapointe and James Kopecky among the most elegant who have danced Sugar Plum and Cavalier, the climax of the grand “Pas de deux,” still sounded very powerful. But a subsequent listening session at home with a couple of reference recordings disclosed a shrieking piccolo that was probably missing from Tchaikovsky’s clangor at Belk Theater.

Charlotte Ballet’s dancers lifted the production high above any quibbles about props or orchestral instrumentation. The main corps and the satellite Charlotte Ballet II dancers maintained the high standard of past years while the work from apprentices, trainees, and students from the company’s academy and conservatory continues to ascend to new heights. Bonnefoux rehearsed the show in his first year away from the daily operations of the company, a great way for him to reconnect – and maybe a great burden lifted from anybody else who ventured to take on the complexities of Nutcracker casting. I was discreetly funneled into the Saturday evening performance so that I would be reviewing Cast A, the dancers who appear in all the publicity shots. An amazing 121 roles are double cast, so you can definitely say there is a Cast B. Yet there are also 21 roles that are triple cast, eight quadruples, and three – major roles – that rotate among five dancers. So on just one given night, over 150 splendid Holly Hynes costumes are in play backstage, and Bonnefoux is making sure that the cast du jour – no matter what the permutation – is in step. You can bet that he appreciates the expertise of Anita Pacylowski-Justo and Laszlo Berdo in staging and rehearsing all the student dancers.

It’s Clara and Fritz who must carry the action until Drosselmeyer dominates, so the Charlotte Ballet students aren’t merely background ornaments. Ava Gray Bobbit and Pierce Gallagher were the Stahlbaum sibs on opening night with Cast A, Gallagher one of two Fritzes and Bobbit one of four Claras. Though Gallagher absolutely reveled in Fritz’s energy and mischief making, Bobbit especially impressed me with her supple line, her perfectly calibrated childishness, and the utter ease and confidence she brought to every step. Only when Giselle MacDonald danced the Toy Doll did we ascend to the level of Charlotte Ballet II and when Maurice Mouzon Jr. followed as the Toy Soldier, we had our first brief sighting of the main company. Diamond has danced Drosselmeyer forever – yes, he gets a chunk of “Grandfather’s Dance” to strut his stuff – but he’s director of Charlotte Ballet II, not a company dancer. Even the rival rulers of the great Nutcracker war, Evan Ambrose as the Mouse King and Michael Manghini as the Nutcracker, were second-string members of Diamond’s company. Cast B digs even deeper, with company apprentices leading the Mice and the Nutcracker brigade into battle.

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Obviously, Bonnefoux has bequeathed a very deep bench to Hope Muir, his successor as artistic director. Aside from the athleticism of Mouzon, the varsity never trod the early earthbound scenes of this resplendent Nutcracker. Only when Sarah Lapointe and James Kopecky greeted us – and the dreaming Clara – in the Land of Snow, were we finally favored with the grace of the top-tier dancers. Lapointe and Kopecky were one of four couples who will perform these rites. Each of them will rotate in some of the upcoming shows into the higher empyrean as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, welcoming Clara to the Land of Sweets. Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall took on these starring roles at the Saturday night opening, and Ball even surpassed herself. Her line and fearlessness now nearly match her peerless musicality. No less than five different couples get to excel in Tchaikovsky’s grand “Pas de deux” during the Nutcracker run.

The new Hynes costumes against the Vaës backdrops really do make the divertissements seem even more spectacular than before, showcasing the fine men in the company. Ryo Suzuki scintillated in his first year with the troupe, so his exploits now in third year fronting the “Gopak” weren’t revelatory. On the other hand, Juwan Alston brought amazing hangtime to his leaps in “Candy Cane,” even if he did teeter a bit on his final landing, and Humberto Ramazzina from Ballet II had an eye-popping precision in the “Chinese Tea.” Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Ben Ingel weren’t the most exotic purveyors of the Arabian “Coffee” duet that I’ve seen over the years, but they radiated sizzling sensual heat.

You almost wished that Charlotte Ballet could have trotted out an overhead camera or mirror when the last of the company’s great ballerinas, Sarah Hayes Harkins, made her decorous appearance as Rose at the center of the gorgeous “Waltz of the Flowers.” At the florid beginning and ending of the piece, Harkins was encircled by a dozen Flowers – petals, really, in Bonnefoux’s imagery – her height vis-à-vis the student dancers beautifully highlighted. Nothing less than the climactic “Pas de deux” could follow such pure, innocent beauty.

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.

 

“Wuthering Heights” Dances Madly to the End of Love

Review: Wuthering Heights

By Perry Tannenbaum

In the epigraph to his new ballet, choreographer Sasha Janes spread out one of Emily Brontë’s most lurid quotes over a full page in the program booklet for Charlotte Ballet’s production of Wuthering Heights. Contemplating her love for the elegant Edgar Linton and the mysterious Heathcliff, Catherine Linton likens her love for Edgar to the leaves of a forest, decorous and mutable, while her love for Heathcliff resembles the rocks below – short on delight, but necessary and eternal.

“I am Heathcliff!” Catherine famously tells Nelly Dean, the narrator of the novel.

Janes was not merely going to tell the story of Wuthering Heights, he was signaling that he would be trying to replicate its towering emotions, manias, and passions.

Incredibly, he largely succeeds.

It helps, of course, that the technical team behind him get the atmospherics right, most notably the lighting and projection designs by Christopher Ash and the costumes by Jennifer Janes. The Janeses are obviously on the same page conceptually, for the costumes designed for Catherine and Heathcliff are folksy and flowing, while the Lintons and Earnshaws tend toward genteel formality, starchiness, and pastels. Choreography magnifies those contrasts, controlled and elegant at Catherine’s wedding to Edgar, wild and athletic in her youthful frolics with Heathcliff.

Charlotte Ballet_Sasha Janes Wuthering Heights_Josh Hall and Chelsea Dumas_1_photo by Christopher Record

As the plot thickens and the protagonists mature, the pas de deuxs between Catherine and Heathcliff become darker and more sensual – and the costumes more diaphanous and scanty. Even uncannier than his choreography, the rightness of Janes’s musical choices assures that you can hardly tear your attention away from the dancers until the overwhelming final scene.

With his dark curly hair and his robust, muscular torso, Josh Hall (alternating with Ben Ingel) was the perfect blend of savagery and beauty as Heathcliff on opening night. After the intermission interval, Hall carried off Heathcliff’s astounding transformation from unrefined rusticity to steely, seething gentility marvelously well, and his partnering in the unique final pas de deux was both powerful and heartbreaking.

Working opposite the power and virility of Hall, Chelsea Dumas very likely convinced a hefty chunk of the opening night crowd that Catherine was the role in Wuthering Heights. Hers were the moves that gave the pas de deuxs with Heathcliff their wildness. Hers were the anguish and madness when the transformed Heathcliff married her sister-in-law Isabella, avenging himself for her betrayal of their love. Through it all, she stands up for Heathcliff against her abusive brother Hindley and her jealous husband Edgar.

Charlotte Ballet_Sasha Janes Wuthering Heights_ Chelsea Dumas_photo by Peter Zay

Both Janes and Dumas seemed to grasp that Brontë thought of Catherine as a woman whose fierce spirit and vitality were too much for her frail frame – particularly when pregnancy and parturition were added to her stresses. In the novel, Catherine’s death is a halfway mark, where our attentions begin to shift to a new generation after a raging, grieving Heathcliff curses his beloved and calls upon her spirit to haunt him the rest of his days.

Following the lead of the 1939 film, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, Janes makes Catherine’s death his denouement. Yet cursing and conjuring aren’t things that ballet does well. So Janes elaborates brilliantly on Heathcliff’s graveside vigil: here Hall clawed at the still fresh mound of dirt over Catherine’s body and actually pulled Dumas out of her grave. Then he danced a pas de deux with Dumas’ lifeless body, lifting and carrying her all over the stage, pouring out his love, his rage, and his grief.

Dumas remained inert as the music and the passion swelled, coming back to life for just a few precious moments, her second death intensifying Hall’s anguish and devastation. Tears flowed freely throughout Knight Theater.

Action before intermission, though clearly distinguishing the protagonists from the others, wasn’t always as brilliant. Janes tells the story well in theatrical vignettes, but there needed to be more real dancing from the supporting players. There could be more ensemble work when Catherine and Heathcliff first spy on the Lintons. By the time we do reach the outbreak of dance at the Catherine-Edgar wedding, it feels overdue and overlong.

Drew Grant as foster brother Hindley and James Kopecky as Edgar had unique dancing spots, Grant in a high-stakes card game with Heathcliff and Kopecky vying with Heathcliff for Catherine’s affections. Other supporting players – most notably Mark Diamond as Heathcliff’s foster father and Sarah Hayes Harkins as his wife Isabella – further demonstrated the depth of the Charlotte Ballet company with their exemplary dramatic work.

Though a final tribute to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has been hurriedly arranged for next month, Wuthering Heights was to be the last program in Bonnefoux’s 21-year tenure as Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. Fittingly enough, the last ballet commissioned for the company under Bonnefoux’s leadership was paired with the first new work commissioned during Bonnefoux’s years, Alonzo King’s MAP, premiered when the company was still known as North Carolina Dance Theatre.

Bridging 1996-2017, the two works were a handsome frame for an impressive artistic director, president, and choreographer. Bonnefoux strengthened a company that was already excellent and made it more prominent in the city’s life. With its powerhouse educational and apprentice programs, Charlotte Ballet now plays a more important role in the city’s future. My turn to lead the cheers, Jean-Pierre. Bravo!

Two Pieces by Sasha Janes Highlight Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works

Review Dance: Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works and Its Tribute to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux
By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Twenty years is a long time in the history of a dance troupe – four or more generations for Charlotte Ballet if you calculate how long the typical dancer remains before moving along or retiring. Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, is taking the latter route after 20 seasons at the helm, an era during which excellence was admirably sustained while the organization grew in strength, most notably in its facilities and educational programming. So it was appropriate to dedicate the latest iteration of Innovative Works as a special tribute to Bonnefoux, not only because this annual showcase of new, exciting, and intimate works was his brainchild but because its current home has been the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance since 2011. There’s no better place for Charlotte Ballet to celebrate.

When Bonnefoux first divulged his imminent fadeout to emeritus status a couple of years ago, he told me that he wouldn’t be choreographing any new pieces, although some new wrinkles were evident in the million-dollar makeover of his Nutcracker last fall. There were no surprises in the 2017 crop of Innovative pieces. The in-house feel of the programming still remains intact, all of the choreographers hailing from within the Charlotte Ballet orbit without any unexpected debuts.

The program began and ended with pieces by associate artistic director (and resident choreographer) Sasha Janes, whose pieces continue to grow more intriguing every year. In between, there were works by Mark Diamond, director of Charlotte Ballet II, Sarah Hayes Harkins, a longtime principal in the company, and David Ingram, a fondly-remembered alum. Continuing the tradition of recent years, each of these choreographers cut an intro that was projected on the side walls of the McBride-Bonnefoux studio before each dance began. Since Janes’ “Hallejujah” was a reprise from last year, Bonnefoux took the opportunity of subbing for Janes, reflecting back on his Innovative series while introducing a piece that was well worth its revival.

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Opening the program, Janes’ “Utopia” was a startling piece to come from a man who spent his formative years in Australia, born more than a decade after the songs on his playlist – by The Platters, Link Wray, Patience & Prudence, and The Teddy Bears – found their way to jukeboxes on 45 rpm discs. The Aussie’s erudition with The Platters is particularly impressive in his sardonic look at 1950’s American domesticity, where everything wasn’t the Father Knows Best bliss that Eisenhower voters would have us recall. “No Matter What You Are,” the song that bookends Janes’ piece, isn’t at all among The Platters’ greatest hits. For over a half century, it has been hidden in plain view on the flipside of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – a clever hint that we’re watching the flipside of the Ike Era. With Elizabeth Truell as the Wife and Josh Hall as the Husband, we watch the typical morning scene of seeing the family breadwinner off to work. Only there was some visible desperation from Truell as she clung to her husband, handing him his hat and briefcase, the devoted housewife gone slightly berserk. Hall was visibly impatient and eager to go, irritated with all the affectionate blandishments, but as we adjourned to his office with “The Great Pretender” (The Platters’ breakthrough hit), we could see that the Husband was suffering from frustrations – and neuroses – of his own.

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Enter Jamie Dee Clifton as the Secretary, to the beat – and power chords – of Wray’s “Rumble.” Her attempts at seduction got a far more welcome reception from the Husband, though there were definitely some signs of distress as he absorbed the vamping. Yet with Patience and Prudence’s “Tonight You Belong to Me,” there could be no doubting Secretary’s conquest, though the necking session was interrupted by a phone call from the patiently waiting Wife back home. Truell’s ensuing solo, begun on the couch of her Psychiatrist (Michael Menghini) was the most sensational segment of the suite for me, savagely contrasted with the cuddlesome harmonies of The Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” The frenetic energies that preceded this therapy session came to full boil, overflowing into a primal scream that Truell delivered into the unresponsive shrink’s face (before he presented his bill). As Janes predicted in his intro, the repetition of “No Matter What You Are” and the bizarre morning send-off took on an added level of irony as we saw so much more clearly how the lyrics applied to the married couple’s daily ritual.

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The other works that preceded intermission weren’t as daring, ambitious, or satisfying. Set to a Chopin favorite, Harkins’ “Gemini” never convinced me that we were seeing two aspects of the same individual, and the promised improvisation element eluded me altogether though the performances by Drew Grant and Ben Ingel were certainly intriguing. Part of the problem was the damage that the McBride-Bonnefoux acoustics did to Ingel’s monologue when he ventured into the audience. Not sitting in the center sections, I hardly understood a word. Nor could I tell what it was that Grant replied from the stage or determine whether it echoed what his partner had just spoken. In this one respect, Booth Playhouse, where Innovative was staged 1998-2009, was a better venue, though it was no better for pre-recorded music and less hospitable for lobby receptions. “Ever After” by Diamond was a better showcase for Harkins’ talents as she partnered with Hall in an abstract piece about the transition to afterlife, set to music by J.S. Bach, Ivan Spassov, and Karl Jenkins. Destined to partner in the program finale later in the evening, the Harkins-Hall duo stole most of what was left, in the wake of Rose Nuchims’ lighting design, of the focus that could have gone to the three other couples onstage. Another barrier to full appreciation was the language barrier, Bach’s German and Jenkins’ Latin.

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Following the hypnotic ecstasy of Diamond’s piece, Ingram’s new “Flamouriá” after the break was rousing and refreshing, set to the music of Luigi Boccherini, which deserves to be heard more often. The modern visuals – huge balloons suspended over the action, projections on the rear wall – clashed provocatively with the 18th century score, and a certain amount of sloppiness was built in to the concept. Movement by four couples, led by Alessandra Ball James and James Kopecky, was by the dancers, “curated” by Ingram. This sparked numerous questions as I watched. Like the other works on the program, “Flamouriá” will be danced by multiple sets of dancers as Innovative continues it run through February 18. So, will the movement change to accord with the other set of dancers – and did Ingram allow his performers any latitude, or multiple choices, in their movements? Unfortunately, some of the sloppiness I witnessed was layered on by the new projection technology that was lavished on the piece. Most of the video was blurry and, at times, edges of the projections cut randomly and inelegantly on the rear screen, stealing focus from the dancers. I’d also thought that those massive white balloons might double as projection surfaces – a potential that went unfulfilled. There were some special moments when Nuchims’ lighting was uncluttered by the new gadgetry, most notably when the dancers became silhouettes against the ginormous backlighting of the rear screen.

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Little needs to be added to the raves I posted at my own website a year ago when Janes’ “Hallelujah” was first unveiled as the penultimate segment of his “Sketches from Grace,” especially since Harkins and Hall danced it last January as well. Okay, maybe not as well as they did this year after living another year with the piece and their dance partnership. The “Sketches,” originally intended by Janes as a tribute to Leonard Cohen, was deflected from its original purpose when the choreographer heard Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” and turned the suite into a Buckley-based sequence. But if Janes had introduced this year’s reprise instead of Bonnefoux, I suspect that he would have mentioned the Canadian troubadour’s death (on the eve of our momentous Election Day). Pared down to the originating essence of  became a fitting tribute to Cohen, with Harkins and Hall sensuously evoking the darkness of his vision through their memorial flame.