Tag Archives: Sarah Hayes Harkins

Fall Works Fetes Bernstein and Robbins in Witty Style

Review: Charlotte Ballet Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hope Muir’s second season as artistic director with Charlotte Ballet began very much like her first, with another program titled Fall Works that revived a gem from the company’s existing repertoire while introducing a pair of pieces that were new to the Queen City. It wasn’t as splashy or audacious as last year’s edition, when Muir not only gave us our first sighting of choreographer Javier de Frutos but also delivered the electricity of Tony Award winner Levi Kraus. The 2018 program was merely more polished and more consistently satisfying.

We began with Jerome Robbins’ setting for Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free, the 1944 prototype of On the Town, their joint debut on Broadway later that year. Muir’s company hasn’t staged this work since it was Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s company, NC Dance Theatre, in 2006, but it certainly returned propitiously, in the centenary year of both Robbins and Bernstein. Robbins was celebrated with a full evening of his works at Spoleto Festival USA earlier this year, a fitting tribute since Robbins founded his dance company, Ballets: USA, at the Italian Spoleto in 1968.

That March 2018 celebration in Charleston circles back to Charlotte when you remember that the program of Robbins duets at Spoleto USA replicated one that had been originally staged in Italy in 1973 – with Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride among the elite superstars who danced the pas de deux.

Longtime NYC Ballet stalwart Kipling Houston, who danced Fancy Free on Dance in America back in 1986 during his younger days, staged a very handsome revival, aided by the dreamy original set design by Oliver Smith and the spot-on World War II costumes by Kermit Love – both on loan from Richmond Ballet. What really livened this staging was the live accompaniment by the Charlotte Symphony under the direction of Christopher James Lees

Peter Mazurowski and Juwan Alston were the two sailors on shore leave in NYC who left James Kopecky in the lurch to pursue a bright yellow skirt, otherwise known as Sarah Hayes Harkins. Kopecky didn’t need to lick his wounds for long before Alessandra Ball James sauntered in, working a burgundy dress. The tone got more serious when James popped up, for the sailors engaged in horseplay even before Harkins arrived on the scene – and teased her a bit after they had vied in preening for her.

Harkins was sassier than usual before her first exit, a welcome sign that she’s hungry for this kind of role. As we saw a couple of times during this comedy, Mazurowski and Alston were in cahoots with one another at Kopecky’s expense, but they competed against each other, too, for the arithmetic is obvious when the young men and women reassemble at the bar. Three men were vying for two women’s favors. Each of the men took a turn at making his case. Landing two prodigious splits after high leaps, making me wince both times, Mazurowski definitely impressed me.

The moment of truth, when we expected the ladies to choose their men, turned chaotic and comical as the guys sought to usurp the ladies’ privilege and wound up brawling with one another – in front of and behind the bar. By the time the fisticuffs had concluded, Harkins and James had escaped, leaving all three sailors high and dry. Cue the entrance of Sarah Lapointe, really working it as she sashayed into view for a delicious cameo.

With Sasha Janes taking Bernstein’s music and replacing Robbins’ choreography with a totally new setting, Facsimile showed us more of Bernstein’s symphonic side and gave us a fuller view of the company to start the 2018-19 season. Instead of Robbins’ original love triangle, Janes presented us with a sometimes-surreal seduction, with Harkins trying to perk up the downtrodden, woebegone Kopecky. Listlessly pushing a custodian’s broom, Kopecky found Harkins beaming sympathetically at him.

Daring and precise as she has always been, Harkins seems to be taking a more lithe and spontaneous approach these days, with a new fluidity that makes her even more versatile and formidable than she has been before. As the troubled Lead Man, Kopecky was more troubled than pathetic, exactly the right mix to keep up Harkins’ efforts to puncture his despondency. You want him to be worth her time.

Janes’ Lead Woman suddenly receives backup when an upstage scrim lifts and a colorful gallery of circus characters appear, from Ringmaster and Equestrians to sideshow Fortune Teller and Strong Man, garishly costumed by Jennifer Janes, the choreographer’s mom. Among this motley crew, Drew Grant as the Ringmaster and Amanda Sturt-Dilley as the Fortune Teller were the most vivid diversions, but I couldn’t help ogling Maurice Mouzon Jr. with his barbells and Colby Foss as the Bearded Lady.

None of these fantastics could quite keep Kopecky’s mood levitated though they became a rather bacchanalian carnival when Lees stirred up the orchestral hullaballoo to max volume. They vanished almost as suddenly as they appeared, leaving Harkins one last half-hearted opportunity to accomplish what the circus could not. Here we saw perhaps the best of Kopecky’s performance as he summoned up sufficient ambivalence to justify a hopeful if not happy ending, chiming beautifully with the music.

With his mischievous against-the-grain style, Medhi Walerski and his Petite Cérémonie easily supplied the most fun of the evening. Dancers in mostly black formal attire, designed by Linda Chow, entered a bare stage – some of them processioning up the theater aisles – and formed a strict chorus line upstage, staggered by gender, repeating the same monotonous step. Then as the rapturous, prayerful strains of Bellini’s “Casta diva” played softly in the background, the men and the women moved in regimented unison, often with the men and women assigned different sequences of movement.

Or a couple might break away from the ensemble to perform a brief duet conspicuously devoid of human connection. Creepily enough, there were times when the ensemble’s regimented routines – or even the couple’s movements – were louder than the opera.

It took awhile for the audience to get Walerski’s humor. There was no turning back when Ben Ingel came out and juggled three balls under a boom mic and delivered a disquisition on the difference between male and female brains while Mozart played faintly in the background and other dancers attempted to distract him. The visibly disproven point our juggler made about men’s brains was that they couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing at the same time.

Similar disconnects between the recorded music and the live action persisted in settings of a Benny Goodman Orchestra version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Moon” and a Mozart concerto, finally arriving at a witty obliquity when we reached an excerpt from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The ensemble danced in the same regimented, sometimes robotic style we had seen in previous sections of Petite Cérémonie, but now each of the 15 dancers also moved a white cube along the floor.

When you recognized the music as coming from Vivaldi’s Winter Concerto, you might imagine that the dancers were performing an ice dance, sliding those white cubes along a frozen pond. As the music churned to its conclusion, they piled all those cubes up and struck a pose. In that final tableau, you could imagine that they had built a little ice castle for their backdrop.

 

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“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

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Ballet’s Last Dance Ranges from Grief to Orgy

Dance Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Finishing Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s penultimate year as artistic director, Charlotte Ballet served up an evening of Spring Works that carved a graceful arc from sorrow to celebration. Musically, the program could be described as all-American, though sticklers would consider that a stretch. Resident choreographer Sasha Janes’s We Danced Through Life, premiered at Chautauqua last summer, is set to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” written in 1893 while the Czech composer was living in America.

No ambiguity about music that followed. George Balanchine’s Who Cares? was set to a sheaf of Gershwin tunes when it premiered in 1970, pared down to eight selections by associate artistic director Patricia McBride, who introduced three of the original 17 pieces back in the days when she was a star of the New York City Ballet. Capping the evening was the world premiere of Dwight Rhoden’s Bop Doo Wah, danced to eight jazz standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Louis Prima, Irving Berlin, and George Benson.

Although Janes scrapped the opening movement of “New World” in condensing it to 20 minutes, he retained a fast-slow-fast (or dense-light-dense) structure by tucking the lovely Largo second movement – and its memorable “Goin’ Home” tune – in between the third movement Molto vivace and the concluding Allegro. That showcased the fearless elegance of Sarah Hayes Harkins in an achingly tender pas de deux with David Morse, along with a move I’d never seen before.

Charlotte Ballet_Sasha Janes_We Danced Through Life_Sarah Hayes Harkins_...[2]

Starting from upstage right and running diagonally toward downstage center, Harkins took one of those leaps that flings a ballerina’s arms and legs out parallel to the floor an instant before a sure-handed guy catches her in midair. But there was no guy standing there to catch Harkins in Janes’s choreography. Instead, two guys somehow overtook her and caught her two arms at the same moment, one under each arm.

Clearly, Harkins and Morse were the tragic couple Janes had in mind as his most pointed evocation of Terrie Valle Hauck, who commissioned the dance at Chautauqua for her late husband Jimmy – particularly at that instant when Morse wasn’t there to catch his partner. But another couple shone in the outer movements, Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall, amid busier action with four other couples. At the end of one set of lifts, the men didn’t put their partners down on the ground. Instead they maintained their lifts and trotted upstage, placing each woman on her own pedestal.

Well done, Jimmy!

Aside from McBride, James and her pink flapper dress was the living link between this presentation of Who Cares? and the company’s previous revival in 2008. She’s still musical and precise in “The Man I Love,” her duet with Hall, and she’s still youthfully jazzy in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” the other piece that McBride originated. There was a tinge of poetry in the title tune, Jamie Dee Clifton’s duet with Hall, and a touch of Fred-and-Ginger sophistication in “Embraceable You,” the Hall-Harkins pairing.

I just felt that this Balanchine was unnecessarily musty compared to the newer pieces bookending it. Couldn’t we get a recording of Hershey Kay’s orchestrations that sounded like they were recorded in stereo, let alone digitally? And the costumes, recreated by Aimee J. Coleman, could stand a refresh. Clifton’s looked like it should have been discarded five washings ago, and Harkins’ – when cutie pie Anna Gerberich danced “My One and Only” eight years ago, it was teal, but now it seemed faded to turquoise.

Yep, it’s challenging to nitpick a Charlotte Ballet program. Everyone is so damn good, but in Rhoden’s Bop Doo Wah, we could lament seeing Addul Manzano, David Morse and Gregory Taylor for the last time. While I wasn’t particularly impressed with his singer, Gloria Reuben (more different in her interpretations than delightful), guitarist Marty Ashby’s jazz band could definitely swing and bop. But come on, man: “Teenie’s Blues,” ostensibly written by trombonist Jay Ashby, had more of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Oop Bop Sh’Bam” than anything else.

Charlotte Ballet_Dwight Rhoden_Bop Doo Wah_Sarah Hayes Harkins_Josh Hall_photo by Jeff Cravotta[10]

That’s why the tune stood up to those that surrounded it, Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” The piece intensified with Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” as James partnered with Morse and Harkins reconnected with Hall, and “How High the Moon,” one of five pieces set by Rhoden for the full cast of 16, fired up with an alto sax solo that I considered the best of the whole suite.

With James partnering Morse one last time, the full cast turned it up another notch as the women let their hair down for Benson’s “My Latin Brother.” But Rhoden knows the value of turning up the intensity to its fullest when his dancers ought to be nearing exhaustion. That’s what a dance orgy is, and Louis Prima’s classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” was the perfect vehicle to take us there, arranged to evoke the Benny Goodman band’s landmark 1939 invasion of Carnegie Hall – and the legendary set of LPs that emerged from it.

Instrumental solo followed instrumental solo in this epic performance, with the guys, previously clad in punkish black costumes by Christine Darch, adding on matching androgynous skirts as they intensified the furious celebration. Not the way Manzano envisioned ending his career, I’m sure – his was the only farewell performance signaling retirement – but he looked as hot as ever in his valedictory appearance. Darch’s costumes for the women were equally sensuous, but due to the shifting hues of Michael Korsch’s lighting design, I never could determine exactly what three or four deep colors the ladies wore.

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