Tag Archives: Meredith Hwang

Charlotte Ballet Roars into a New Era With FALL WORKS

Review: Fall Works by Charlotte Ballet

By Perry Tannenbaum

Under the Lights_Taylor Jones

Knight Theater should have been abuzz last Friday night. Yet somehow, a year after Charlotte Ballet’s 50th-anniversary celebration – celebrated a year after the company’s actual 50th anniversary – my excitement wasn’t reflected by the community at large. A night after Opera Carolina had opened its 2022-23 season at Belk Theater to an empty upper balcony and a disappointing crowd, the curtain went up on Ballet’s new era with a similarly sparse turnout.

Our takeaways from this phenomenon need not be terribly dire, for it may be up to OpCar and CharBallet to learn a simple lesson: don’t open your seasons on the same night! Or on the night that a megahit like Hamilton – or the NBA season – is opening down the block. Your two companies collaborate every December on The Nutcracker, so you ought to be able to ace October.

It can be disheartening for performers to see the curtain rise on a hall pocked with vacant seats, but the effect seemed more noticeable on the soloists singing Tosca than on the dancers bringing us FALL WORKS. Understandable. Charlotte Ballet is a more resident company, devoid of prima donnas who swoop into town for one rehearsal and one weekend, they’ve worked hard perfecting their moves at their own studio, and nearly 40% of them have been in the company for less than two years.

They can be as excited to be working with new comrades and new partners as we are to see the diverse new faces. Implacable prerecorded music – synced to crucial interactions with other corps members – keeps them in step, and they don’t need to worry whether their voices will betray their nerves. Or hold up through Act III.

We can question the wisdom of reprising two works that premiered here within the past three years. Both Helen Pickett’s IN Cognito and Crystal Pite’s A Picture of You are fascinating, edgy pieces, neither one saddled with music we might readily recall months or years afterward. Although the choreographies jogged my memory, the freshness of the experiences was enhanced by watching different dancers perform them, especially after missing opening night to attend the opera.

OK, so I must admit a little frustration that, more than six months after he was named CharBallet’s new artistic director, we still haven’t seen any of Alejandro Cerrudo’s choreography here in Charlotte. After all, it’s over eight years since I lobbied specifically for our most prestigious performing arts company to take up Cerrudo’s work when I first saw it at Spoleto Festival USA, tabbing it a “winner” after witnessing Hubbard Street Chicago’s staging. Nor have I yet seen Cerrudo onstage to address his company’s loyal audience.Anna Mains_Ben Ingel_UTL_by Taylor Jones

Instead, we could take consolation in getting the local premiere of Under the Lights by Christopher Stuart, the new director of Charlotte Ballet II. After the heaviness and intensity before intermission, Stuart’s medley, set to nine tunes by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, was a light and lively chaser. A couple of dancers from Ballet II occasionally infiltrated the frontliners in this entertaining suite, adding their youth to the bustle and effervescence onstage.

Similar incursions occurred over the course of Pickett’s IN Cognito, which proved to be the most free-flowing work of the evening, hardest to follow, and by far the easiest to forget. As a result, the impact for me was almost as fresh as Stuart’s piece, a good thing, and I didn’t find myself comparing the dancers of 2022 with those who gave the world premiere performance in 2019. Only one of the nine I saw on Friday had danced it two years ago. I hardly ever knew what was coming next, but when it came, it usually struck me as familiar – and the flow of the piece seemed far more organic this time.

So much was going on with the dancers, in multitudinous permutations moving hither and thither, that I often lost track of the props and furnishings whisked onto the stage and then off to the wings. One of the two table lamps would suddenly be missing, lounge chairs might multiply while the sofa exited, or a quartet of mismatched chandeliers might arrive randomly from the fly loft without reason. The dancer hiding behind the shrub – incognito? – would exit elaborately, crossing the entire upstage to the opposite wing, making herself absurd.

Sarah Lapointe_Ben Ingel_UTL_by Taylor JonesDancers communicated and coordinated. They partnered, interacted, and created beauty together. Yet they never connected, perhaps incognito to each other and to everyone else. Busy and beautifully baffling, very much like the modern world.

A Picture of You Falling, with choreographer Pite also supplying the biting prerecorded text, was edgier, more satirically impersonal. At times catatonically repetitive, this strange pas de deux imprints itself readily and deeply – an almost sinful delight, since it lays bare the careless ways we talk about love and romance. Sarah Lapointe and Ben Ingel first connect by accidentally bumping into one another. We’re speaking literally here, as they walk in opposite directions across a geometrical space outlined at regular intervals by strobe lights.

When Ingel falls, he literally falls, and his heart literally hits the floor when he is smitten and when the makeshift couple breaks apart. Unlike the score that Pickett cobbled together to move and regulate her dancers, the original music by Owen Belton never seems to register as a pulse or an emotional coloring, particularly when Pite tells us “This is the place” and “This is how it happens” – over and over.

What lighting designer Robert Sondergaard creates with his symmetrical formation of strobes is emphatically not a space. Nor can we be sure whether Pite is telling us again and again and again that this is how this ephemeral intimacy happens or whether – in some kind of condensed or looping timeframe – it’s actually happening again and again. Focus does shift for a while from Ingel to Lapointe in the moments of intimacy leading to the breakup, but this is ultimately the man’s story. Or a picture of what men have made out of love.Maurice Mouzon Jr_Shaina Wire_IN Cognito_by Taylor Jones

We confronted a couple of filters between ourselves and the music of the Cashes in Under the Lights. The least discordant of these was Stuart’s choreography, which briefly stumbled with his blithe setting for “Folsom Prison Blues,” when his five men carried on merrily during the vocalist’s confession that he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” a jarring disconnect. More problematic were the recordings of The Man in Black’s signature songs by Sugar + the Hi-Lows, most egregiously lightweight when they missed the gravitas and drama of “Hurt,” leaving Nadine Barton little to work with, though she worked it well.

James Kopecky got us off to a charismatic start with “I Walk the Line” as it dawned on us what we would have to cope with from the Bi-Los. Anyone who had heard a definitive rendition of “Ring of Fire” or “Jackson” could empathize with the struggles Stuart faced, but Sarah Hayes Harkins didn’t flinch at all as she joined Kopecky for the coolish “Fire,” and a couple of winsome couples, Isabella Bertolotti with Humberto Ramazzina and Meredith Hwang with Oliver Oguma, redeemed the Mississippi superficiality.

Sugar plus or minus the Hi-Lows was hard for me to swallow, which may account for my liking Stuart’s settings best for songs I was least familiar with. “Two Day High” offered us three dynamic duos, Isabella Franco with Maurice Mouzon Jr., Shaina Wire with Luke Csordas, and Olivia Parsons with Juan Castellanos. With “I’ve Got You Covered,” we got a glimpse of Amelia Sturt-Dilly partnered with Kopecky, just one night after she danced A Picture of You, the CharBallet commission she premiered a year ago. Stuart’s best pas de deux by far.

“Tennessee Quick” was the most attractive track I heard from Sugar +, complemented by some really rousing ensemble work from Stuart and a swarm of 14 dancers. Couldn’t imagine Johnny singing that one. That harmonious taste of “Tennessee” was a perfect setup for Stuart’s stomping ensemble finale, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” fronted by Kopecky, the hardest-working man in Charlotte that night. Johnny didn’t get to that golden nugget until late in his career, so it wasn’t among his best recordings, but to hear the Hi-Lows attacking that traditional come-to-Jesus song with an electric guitar was almost as much of a kick as Kopecky and his backups.

Choreographic Lab Distills Inventiveness and Energy

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Choreographic Lab

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published on 5/15 at CVNC.org

Heretical Fairy-Tailored Format Is a Winner at the Knight

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

Final Dance by Jeff Cravotta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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