Tag Archives: Ryo Suzuki

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

Review : Nutcracker

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By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ballet’s Hope Muir Makes Some Noise in “Fall Works” Debut

Review: Charlotte Ballet Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

We didn’t have to wait long before realizing that Charlotte Ballet didn’t bring Hope Muir aboard as their new artistic director so that she would meekly follow in her predecessor’s footsteps. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux made a lasting impression on Charlotte’s dance scene during his 20 years at the helm, and the first program at Knight Theater after his retirement, Fall Works, paid a graceful tribute to him with George Balanchine’s Apollo, one of Bonnefoux’s most important roles during his years as principal dancer with New York’s City Ballet. Sandwiching that tribute, last staged here by Patricia McBride in 2010, were a pair of choreographers we will no doubt be seeing more of after this 2017-18 season opener, Johan Inger and Javier de Frutos. Our first taste of Inger, Walking Mad, didn’t disappoint, and the de Frutos finale, Elsa Canasta, was a foretaste of the excitement he’ll be bringing to the Knight next March, when his fairytale pop ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, gets its American premiere.

Due partly to technical difficulties, Inger wound up upstaging de Frutos on opening night. Walking Mad began with a quiet surprise as Ryo Suzuki, dressed in a simple coat and bowler hat, climbed onto the darkened stage from the orchestra pit, continuing to advance toward the rear until we became aware of a rather plain-looking wooden wall. Without any warning, the whole wall advanced, sweeping Suzuki downstage with all the finesse of a snowplow. Signs of life appeared comically at both ends of this wall, and our presumption that the wall was ordinary – or stationary – was soon demolished in the traffic of the dancers. Eight more of them would emerge. Doors appeared in the wall for entrances and exits, the wall separated and folded, and for another episode, lay flat on the stage like a palette. If that weren’t bizarre and sufficiently unpredictable, what we saw from the dancers and what we heard in the music compounded the surprises.

 

Boys streamed out in nerdy little party hats, followed by girls in the same pointy hats. Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” sprang up loudly, each new pass of the melody roughly marking the beginning of an unpredictable episode. Moods swung suddenly from party jubilation to trembling anxiety. Loose joyous limbs were succeeded by spasmodic tremblings of fear and anxiety, the 2001 choreography often resembling the Gaga dance idiom we’ve previously seen in Ohad Naharin’s work. Most affecting, perhaps, were the trepidations of Elizabeth Truell in her duets and trios, almost fetal in her withdrawal at times, throwing partners violently into the wall at others, and getting thrown in return. There were even moments when dancers were almost impossibly splayed on the wall. Suddenly, as the “Bolero” was growing wild, it seemed to stop as the wall went into yet another permutation, folding so that its two halves were perpendicular, Truell huddled in the corner. But the sound was only being muffled while she was in her agonizing isolation, returning to full blast as suddenly and unpredictably as the volume had dropped. The audience went wild as the Ravel concluded, but the spotlight on Suzuki signaled that Inger wasn’t done. Set to the somber “Für Alina” by Arvo Pärt, the choreographer added a coda, Suzuki making fumbling attempts to connect with Sarah Hayes Harkins before grabbing his coat, his hat, and fading upstage. The spare piano solo gently underscored the pathos.

After this dark and jagged piece, Balanchine’s Apollo was a very sunny contrast as Josh Hall portrayed the sun god. McBride, carrying on at Charlotte Ballet as associate artistic director after her husband’s retirement, had to be pleased with Hall’s equipoise and majesty, but there was also scintillating work from Apollo’s Three Muses. Drab as they had looked in

Walking Mad, Harkins as Polyhymnia and Chelsea Dumas as Calliope returned resplendently. Apollo handed out the appropriate props before the soloing began to Igor Stravinsky’s score, a plastic scroll to Calliope signifying poetry, a comedy mask for Polyhymnia signifying theatre and rhetoric, and a lyre to Terpsichore signifying music and dance – Alessandra Ball James making her first appearance of the season. Since he is often depicted with a lyre, Apollo inevitably chose Terpsichore for the climactic pas de deux after the second of his solos, and James certainly earned the honor. If Harkins is the most fearless and precise member of the troupe, I must say that James remains the most lyrical by virtue of her supreme fluidity. Just watch her arms and hands in this piece and you’ll see the essence of James’s musicality. After the Muses’ mini-festival of the arts, it’s always satisfying – and slightly surprising – to see the Muses teaming with Apollo to form a radiant sun in the last tableau.

Solo brilliance and individuality weren’t absent from Elsa Canasta, a piece built on familiar Cole Porter songs and a rarity among his works, “Within the Quota” – a ballet written for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, the same impresario and dance company that premiered Apollo in 1928. Diaghilev rejected Porter’s ballet even though the composer had just rescued him and his company when they skipped out of a swank Venice hotel without paying their bill. The de Frutos piece premiered in 2003 with Muir in the cast while she was still a member of the Rambert Dance Company in London, but it has undergone some intriguing evolution. Taking his cue from Ethel Merman’s rousing recording of Porter’s “Ridin’ High” (from Red, Hot and Blue), de Frutos originally had a female hostess at his party scene, his title a mash-up of famed hostess Elsa Maxwell and a bygone card-game fad that could have infused her parties.

Now the host is Levi Kreis, the charismatic singer and actor who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet. Here he’s in a jazzy Tin Pan Alley mode, a “sort of modern day Cole Porter,” according to the description that de Frutos sent Kreis. Needless to say, Ben Pope has had to transpose the keys of his original orchestration to accommodate Kreis, and he has added a prologue that didn’t exist in London. To make the new Charlotte Ballet presentation more of a singular event, Pope conducted his own score live for the first time, leading an ensemble that included a string quartet and an octet from Charlotte’s Jazz Arts Initiative.

Staging by Muir was less than ideal, for the varied percussion that might have blared forth in “Ridin’ High” when Kreis summoned bells, horns, and gongs was almost entirely interred in the orchestra pit. Worse still, Kreis was scandalously overmiked, garbling many of Porter’s familiar lyrics and rendering whatever he was saying in the Prologue unintelligible. Whether or not that malfunction threw the performance into disarray was hard to say. Kreis was listed as a participant in the instrumental “Within the Quota” segment, but he was gone after his wonderful interpretation of “So in Love” was compromised by sound problems. Nevertheless, with a passionate duet between Hall and Peter Mazurowki as Kreis sang, “So in Love” remained the most poignant episode in this piece, clearly depicting the anguish of forbidden love. Porter’s empathy and Kreis’s were particularly apt here, coming from gay artists.

Kreis’s absence during Porter’s ballet music, a stunning orchestration from Pope, may have been a last-minute change by Muir after programs had been printed. Or perhaps Kreis was backstage frantically trying to contact the soundbooth. Either way, something major needed to be fixed before the next performance. When Kreis returned, so did the glorious James, this time partnered by James Kopecky. Adding delicious dimensions of danger and difficulty to the choreography, set designer Jean-Marc Puissant spread a modernistic staircase across half of the Knight stage, moodily lit by Bruno Poet. Ensemble action and the duets played up and down this rising horizontal expanse, and I found myself holding my breath during several jumps and lifts.

Aside from the deafening mic, my biggest disappointment was Kreiss’s physical detachment during the ensemble segments. He needed to be closer, truly communicating with the dancers, and I regretted his absence during the ballet, which ran over eleven minutes in the piano version I obtained prior to the performance. And if he’s truly our host, Muir and de Frutos ought to consider having Cole Porter’s guests pay attention to him. I’m not sure anybody onstage favored Kreis with a single glance.

 

Charlotte Ballet’s New $1 Million Nut Is Everything It Was Cracked Up to Be

Dance Review :  Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Many of the people who jammed into Belk Theater on Saturday afternoon, nearly filling the top balcony to the rafters, were wondering the same thing as I was. Just how much can $1 million do to improve Charlotte Ballet’s already stellar production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker? There weren’t any gaping holes that needed to be filled in when it came to the live music. Charlotte Symphony has played the ballet score beautifully ever since Salvatore Aiello transplanted the dance troupe, originally known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, from Winston-Salem in 1990.

Many of the musicians – and many of the orchestra’s principals – who accompanied Aiello’s setting for Nutcracker in the early years have played on through the many iterations of Jean-Pierre Boonefoux’s choreography, which premiered in 2006. Every one of the players works up the same zest for the music as the year before. Nor can money buy a much finer array of dancers to fill the stage with agility and grace. Calling the dancers in Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II – not to mention the various levels of apprentices, trainees, and students from the company’s Academy – the best in North Carolina may actually be an understatement.

Of course, the unprecedented gift had garnered plenty of positive publicity for the donors, the McColl family of Bank of America fame, and the worthy recipients. Unless you had completely ignored the Charlotte Observer for the past three months, you already knew that the McColl makeover would bring new Nutcracker costumes and new scenery to the Belk stage – and to lavishly renovated Gaillard Center in Charleston, where the Christmas classic will sojourn on December 10 and 11 before returning to Charlotte on December 13-23 for an additional 13 performances. I probably wasn’t alone in bringing a show-me attitude to the unusual matinee premiere, for the costumes, the scenery, and the spectacle of Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker, incrementally upgraded in its early years, had already proven to be quite formidable in their elegance and wit.

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Holly Hynes’s new set of costume designs gobbled up most of the prepublicity. Taking her inspiration from the Belle Epoque (1871-1914), Hynes and a team of 300 dressmakers in 15 states created 208 new costumes, each one costing as much as $6000. As she confessed in one of the two infomercials I’ve seen, Hynes often had to rely on a bunch of polyester to offset the extravagance of the dancers’ silks. The new scenery by Alain Vaës obviously took its inspiration from Bonnefoux’s traditional Nutcracker scenario and Steven Rubin’s set designs, seeming to depart more radically from Rubin’s concepts as the story moved from the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party to Clara’s dreamy fantasies, developing a whole new motif of whimsy – lifesize cutouts! – along the way.

Vaës wasn’t working with a paltry budget, either. A whole new trim, teeming with red, covered the entire arc of the proscenium. The backlit scrim of the Staulbaums’ town, more brightly lit by the lamplight gleaming through the windows of the homes than by the moonlight, greeted us like the frontispiece of a storybook.

In its nocturnal grayness, the first exterior view of the Staulbaum home was very similar to Rubin’s, but we were looking from a greater distance, seeing all that can be seen instead of merely the front façade. There was a little more humor in the gradual reveal of the magnificent interior, for the first of the new cutouts, a housemaid, was wheeled out to centerstage to greet the guests. Onto its outstretched arms, the parade of guests flung coats, stoles, and scarves until this cunning portable closet was rolled away.

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Imagery in the new Vaës scenic designs is bolder, more calculated to appear colossal, and the designer’s drawings evoked for me two of the great masterworks of the Belle Epoque, War and Peace and Alice in Wonderland. Probably by sheer accident, the bold muscularity and the florid curves in some of the scenery reminded me of Fritz Eichenberg’s memorable illustrations for the Heritage edition of Tolstoy’s epic. But the evocation of Alice was quite intentional. After the party, when Clara nodded off, the Mouse King entered the scene on a broken teacup for his royal battle with the Nutcracker. Once Clara assisted her champion in his victory, the set changed briefly to a surreal and magical toyland, where the head of Clara’s doll was as large as the castle. Very Alice.

The new scenery also brings fresh emphasis to numerous arrivals. Drosselmeyer’s amazing gifts, Clara’s Toy Doll and her brother Fritz’s Toy Soldier, arrive on carts where each of them is flanked by two lifesize cutouts of the same toy. Instead of lifting her massive skirts to reveal her periwigged Marzipan brood, Mother Ginger arrived on the second floor of her own gingerbread house, opening the front doors to let them out. But aside from the Mouse King’s teacup and the flying balloon-boat that carries Clara off to the Land of Sweets – a galleon now large enough to transport two honeymooning couples – the most significant entrance was created for Herr Drosselmeyer. He arrived at the Stahlbaum soirée in his own clock tower!

Mark Diamond may hold onto his annual stint as Drosselmeyer even after he’s forced to arrive clutching a walker, for he still revels in reminding us with his comical antics that he himself is program director of Charlotte Ballet II and, more importantly, one of the company’s potent line of resident choreographers. The Drosselmeyer shtick always looks like Diamond is doing his own thing, altering the routine every year – maybe every performance.

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The new clock draws the spotlight in Mary Louise Geiger’s new lighting design when Tchaikovsky’s score tolls the midnight hour chez Stahlbaum. Using his new cutouts, Bonnefoux completely alters this segment in his choreography. In past years, spotlights flashed on a different costumed kid each time the bell tolled, unpredictably scanning the full width of the stage. Now there was simply a single-file parade of various cutouts, their manipulators hidden behind them. As we approached the final chiming, we had our first glimpse of the lifesize girl doll that would enlarge to supernatural Alice-size in the yet-unseen scenery.

Geiger also teamed up with Hynes on some of the new magic. Like the opening cityscape, Vaës’s new Land of Sweets builds on Rubin’s previous concept of candy canes and gumdrops by putting us at a greater distance and increasing its scale. We could now see a huge skylight window in the rooftop dome opening up on a starry evening sky. At floor level below, the view also opens up to the outdoors, directing our gaze toward the horizon. Initially, there was a marked difference between the two views: it was still twilight on the horizon while it was already evening above.

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In this unflattering light, we had our first glimpse of the newly minted backup dancers for the Coffee segment. Their bright red skirts, contrasting sharply with their dark blouses, seemed garish under the bright light between the little Marzipan and Candy Cane groups. But Geiger would dramatically lower the lights for Raven Barkley and Ben Ingel, so it was now (briefly) nighttime both on the horizon and above when they performed their sinuous Coffee pas de deux – and the perfection of the six backup dancers’ glowing red skirts in this dimmed light redeemed them from the first impressions they had made. Their pink capes also made a difference.

In little ways and in big ways, Bonnefoux and his design team have heightened the wow factor in staging their spectacle. Just for the Tea segment in Act 2, a Chinese dragon drops down from the flyloft for a visit, and the Stahlbaums’ Christmas tree no longer stops it miraculous growth when its piney peak hits the ceiling. Now when Drosselmeyer cast his spell, that growth continued on the upstage backdrop until the entire upstage wall was filled with what we imagined was a wee portion of the fabulously gigantic tree. You need not worry that such awesome stagecraft at all diminishes the exploits of the dancers. Aided by their revamped costumes, Charlotte Ballet still measured up to the superabundance surrounding them.

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Rosie Morrison as Clara and Clay Houston as Fritz may be the most personable Stahlbaum kids I’ve seen. The precision and perfection of Sarah Hayes Harkins as the Sugar Plum Fairy will surely inspire little ballerinas who see Nutcracker for the first time. Harkins hits every beat with her elegant movements exactly on the nose, and her new partner, Drew Grant, is the picture of chivalry as her Cavalier, though the rookie needs to loosen up a bit. Chelsea Dumas and Ben Ingel were a similarly ideal couple at the premiere as the Snow Queen and King, and Alessandra Ball James was luminous in her musicality as Rose in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Below tea green tops, Rose’s dozen dancing flowers sported frilly three-tiered skirts, each tier a different tint of pink or fuchsia. Even a child could recognize the stems and petals of the flowers for what they were.

Except for Fritz, who is merely doublecast, there’s a dizzying rotation of four dancers for each of the major roles I just named. It would take an astronomer to predict when, where, and if this exact alignment will occur again, so let me merely add the names of the other dancers who will figure in the dizzying mix: Jamie Dee Clifton, Elizabeth Truell, and Sarah Lapointe among the ladies, James Kopecky and Juwan Alston among the gentlemen.

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The athleticism of the Charlotte Ballet men did shine through during the Act 2 procession of divertissements, counterbalancing the dominance of the ballerinas. Newcomer Peter Mazurowski sparkled in the Gopak section and, under that dragon, Humberto Ramazzina from the II troupe served charmingly – and deferentially – in Tea. Both of these men are in a rotation of three men who will dance their roles. So will Ryo Suzuki, whom I wasn’t seeing for the first time as Candy Cane. I don’t think I’ve seen Ryo’s match in performing Candy’s joyously asymmetrical leaps, but I’m sure parents and children of all ages will be satisfied when Suzuki rotates to Tea and Gopak.

New Costumes and Scenery Heighten the Wonder of Charlotte Ballet’s “Little Mermaid”

By Perry Tannenbaum

March 11, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Everything seems to be going so well at Charlotte Ballet as Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux stands on the verge of his final year as artistic director. During his tenure, Bonnefoux has seen his dance troupe establish residence in the trendiest theater in town on South Tryon Street while the company strengthened its educational program at its new administrative HQ on North Tryon Street. Two days before opening night of a nine-performance run of The Little Mermaid, choreographed by Mark Diamond, news broke that the McColl family – the BofA billionaires – had given the company $1 million to revamp Bonnefoux’s version of The Nutcracker, leaving little doubt about what the company’s most spectacular production will be for years to come. That announcement may have upstaged the new sets and costumes adorning the Diamond remount in the eyes of newspaper readers, but for the horde of little girls who helped fill Knight Theater to near capacity on opening night, the light in their eyes came from the new undersea wonders lavished upon The Little Mermaid.

There was definitely a fresh dazzle in the new costumes by Aimee J. Coleman, and their iridescence wasn’t confined to the rig Alessandra Ball James wore as the Mermaid before shedding her tailfins for legs. Three Little Mermaid Friends and a matching pair of Seahorses also gleamed, and there was a Day-Glo phosphorescence to the costumes of the Eels, the Undertow group, and the Fish. This new Little Mermaid signals that the extensive use of youthful dancers at Charlotte Ballet will no longer be confined to the annual Nutcracker extravaganza. No less than 20 kids are listed as Fish in the program, and they actually began the show with an extensive dance of their own, fluttering in formation and seemingly gliding across the stage in a manner that simulated black-light puppetry. Diamond had them admirably schooled to resemble a school of fish at multiple points in their dance.

Costumes that aren’t aglow are frequently marvels. Parents will no doubt need to dip into their program booklets to inform their princesses that Ryo Suzuki is an Anemone, but there’s no mistaking Raven Barkley for anything but a Sea Turtle. The sheer plenitude of sea creatures that have nothing to do with the story is a constant delight, not in the least Rylie Beck, making her way up the orchestra aisle at a snail’s pace and lurking onstage as the Hermit Crab – though she could easily be mistaken for a Mary Poppins’ old rucksack. As enchanting as all these costumes were, the new wow factor came from Michael Baumgarten’s lighting projections, functional when the Mermaid’s destined Prince gets thrown overboard during a storm but truly spectacular as we glide through undersea corals and canyons.

The low tech, held over from previous Mermaid productions of 2008 and 2011, mixes charmingly with the high tech as we watch the scene where the Prince is tossed by the tempest and the Mermaid rescues him. Three linen ribbons that stretched across the stage were the sea, and I’m sure that the sailboat James Kopecky fell out of wasn’t even half-built. Throughout the opening act, while the Mermaid remains a finned sea creature, Diamond solves the Mermaid’s mobility problem by having her transported in the sort of sledge the crippled Porgy might use, drawn by the same invisible hands that ripple the linen ocean from the wings. When Ball James rises from floor level, she remains horizontal thanks to the ministrations of her Friends and the rolling Undertow crew.

Although Addul Manzano makes a dashing appearance as the Sea King, Diamond hasn’t integrated him into the drama. Aside from the Mermaid, who occasionally appears on the verge of being heaved onto a dinner platter, it’s Jamie Dee Clifton who makes the biggest splash as the Sea Witch. Beyond pointing upwards, the Mermaid doesn’t articulate what she’s yearning for in the climactic encounter with the Witch, but the real exposition gap that Diamond leaves parents to fill in for their kids is the particulars of the bargain that the Mermaid agrees to when the Witch grants her the ability to walk on land. Clifton’s movements – and her saturnine costume – make it clear enough that goodwill and charity aren’t motivating the Witch as she grants the Mermaid’s wishes, and there’s a wondrous fairytale foreboding when Clifton hands Ball James the magic potion that effects her metamorphosis.

Thanks to the last of Baumgarten’s projections, the Mermaid awakens on a beauteous seashore with her newfound legs. Diamond doesn’t skip over the most absurd aspect of the Mermaid’s transformation, so we get an endearing, comical incongruity that no parent will be able to explain. After the Mermaid marvels at her feet and toes, she stands up tentatively on her legs like a newborn foal – and within seconds is dancing like the Princess Grace Fellowship winner that Ball James truly is. Even without the same undersea magic afterwards, Diamond constructs a second act that intertwines the Mermaid/Prince romance with a couple of strands of comedy and a couple of explosions of pure dance.

Along with two Charlotte Ballet II troupe members, namely Suzanna Duba and the hunched-over Ben Youngstone, Beck sheds her shell to become one of three Gossips. Singly, they snoop and scurry about in various corners and alleys of the set as the Mermaid glows, blushes, and plain shows off in response to all the attentions that the Prince lavishes upon her. Collectively, they engage in effusive sessions of head-bobbing, mouth-flapping gossip. But it’s a military trio, no more pertinent to the action than the Turtle before them, who provide the greatest comic delight. David Morse is pomposity itself as the General, head tilted back and sporting an imposing belly bulge. Yet he begins bickering lustily as soon as Josh Hall appears as the Admiral, topped with the appropriate seafaring hat. It becomes so heated – and of course, silly – that Amand Pulaj as the Secretary General is hard-pressed to keep them for pawing each other to death.

When he isn’t bickering, the General reviews a small brigade of Officers whose uniforms are colorfully unalike. But in her costumes for Suzuki, Juwan Alston, Iago Bresciani, Ben Ingel, Thel Moore, and Gregory Taylor; Coleman makes sure that each of the designs registers as unmistakably Russian, matching the spirited music by Glière that they dance to. Nearly all these soldier dances are solos where each of the men vies with the others in acrobatic éclat. But the Russian flavor only crystallizes what has gone before. There is some Debussy wedged into the score Diamond has chosen, but with the generous selections from Borodin’s chamber and orchestral works, the overall musical texture is decidedly Russian. When we adjourn from the Prince’s garden to the ballroom in his palace (the most impressive of Howard Jones’s new set designs), we could be at any Russian ballet, for Diamond’s dance stylings are as retro as the music.

During this formal cotillion, Sarah Hayes Harkins comes into full flower as the Prince’s Fiancée, a vision of cold elegant perfection as she dances with Kopecky, hardly deigning to notice her rival skulking in the corner in her damp rags. The tension between the supple, skittish, and vulnerable Ball James and the serene and imperious Harkins seems so ideal that I wondered how they could be switching roles for four of the nine performances. But they are merely the tip of a general shuffle of principals including Kopecky, Manzano, Hall, Morse, Clifton, and Chelsea Dumas. Diamond could easily shuffle a few more members from the main troupe and the satellite Ballet II dancers without marring the overall effect. The company that Bonnefoux has built is that strong.

© 2016 CVNC

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

Innovative Works_Yamato_Dancer Ryo Suzuki

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

Innovative Works_Dwight Rhoden_Ballad Unto

Photos by Peter Zay

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Ballet Innovative Works by Christopher Record

Photo by Christopher Record

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