Carolina Ballet’s artistic director Robert Weiss and choreographer-in-residence Zalman Raffel have gone above and beyond in presenting spectacular new ballets this season; and the latest addition, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue: Unofficial Anthem from the American Canon, opened on April 20th to a delighted Raleigh Memorial Auditorium audience. The pairing of the ballet to Gershwin’s music with Serenata by Antonín Dvořák, Courtly Manners by Gottfried Heinrich Stőlzel, and the Mephisto Waltz by Franz Liszt created an evening of moody choreography that was poetic in form.
The evening opened with a tableau of dancers in various still poses; and when one looks a little closer, it’s clear they are lovers, and the couple to whom we should be drawn are the last ones that we’ll notice, because they’re lying down in the middle of the floor. Slowly, the tableau begins to awaken, couples peel away for miniature pas de deux that showcase the partner’s strengths. Alicia Fabry and Rammaru Shindo shine in their moments on stage, but each set of partners contribute to the moving poem that the dance becomes.
Margaret Severin-Hansen and Richard Krusch are the lovers in this piece, moving apart and coming together with a happy passion that speaks of the moments between sleep and wakefulness, that time when movements are languid and sensory perception is at its height. Severin-Hansen alights like a butterfly when she moves across the stage; but she can easily match Krusch’s strength in larger moves and her ability to elongate her petite size leads you to believe she has actually grown a few inches, becoming almost as tall as her partner by the end of the dance.
Toward the end of the piece, other partners (Courtney Scheneberger and Nikolai Smirnov, Ashley Hathaway and Adam Schiffer, and Randi Osetek and Adam Crawford Chavis) join Fabry and Shindo and Severin-Hansen and Krusch onstage; and the dancers appear to move into reverse, mimicking the way that the dance began. It’s a gorgeous piece.
After a long intermission, the second piece, Courtly Manners, with music by Stozel and choreography by Robert Weiss, involves the 15 members of the company in a complicated dance of regal tête-à-tête. The choreography brings to mind the royal marches one sees during celebrations at Windsor Castle or Versailles.
Five men and 10 women complete the group of 15 in this piece, and the men spend a good portion of time walking across stage, as if in a daydream, evoking the same type of melancholia written into the Serenata ballet. The women flit in and out of the men, each connecting with their partner for a brief pas de deux before moving back offstage. While the quiet passion between the couples is a perfect metaphor for the manners in the ballet’s title, the men sometimes look lost, as if they’ve forgotten where they should be onstage. It’s obvious in that moment that we are watching dancers who are not the seasoned professionals as those in Serenata.
The next dance, titled Mephisto Waltz, with music by Liszt, is a dance that Weiss created with principal Lilyan Vigo Ellis in mind. She plays the Young Girl to Yevgeny Shlapko’s Devil, a perfect pairing that is dramatic and elegant. They’re dressed in formal wear reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera, yet the dance is more aligned with Dracula.
As with the other dances, this one incorporates that dream-like state, but this time, the dream is a nightmare.
Vigo dances like the experienced principal ballerina she is; and Shlapko balances her, controlling her movements with mere movements of his fingers. In fact, hands are as important to this dance as leaps, arabesques, and footwork. Shlapko’s wide-fingered stance underlines his dance and reminds one of Bob Fosse’s signature jazz hands.
Liszt actually wrote four waltzes, and there’s a nod to that quartet in the way the setting is handled. Though the music showcases the amazing mastery of composition, when the music is danced, it allows experienced ballerinas, such as Vigo, to showcase their own mastery; and the footwork and dazzling display of energy in this choreography does just that. Everything about this dance, from the gloomy, full-moon backdrop that undergoes several changes until the end of the ballet, when it turns red, to the costuming and the choice of these two dancers for this ballet is perfect.
After another short intermission, the star of the night fills the stage with Rhapsody, a ballet based on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and choreographed by Zalman Raffel. The notes are instantly recognizable, as are the costumes, reminiscent of those used in the 1951 musical, An American in Paris; and the lovely Lindsay Purrington and Jan Burkhard light up the stage with their dancing and embodiment of their characters. Purrington reminds one of a young Leslie Caron, and Burkhardt commands attention, whether dancing with a group of men or on stage solo.
When the women join principal dancer Marcelo Martinez for a jazzy pas de trois, the music swells in response and one is instantly transported to the dream world introduced in the first piece of the note. As Burkhard and Martinez close the piece (and the evening) with a pas de deux that melts into a starlit backdrop, the audience draws a collective sigh.
Like a collection of linked stories, these ballets showcase what it means to be lulled into a rhapsodic moment that can be either languid (like Serenata), habitual (like Courtly Manners), full of passion and fear (like Mephisto), or optimistic (like Rhapsody). It’s an absolutely lovely collection with choreography that showcases the best ballet dancers in the South.
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.