Autumn signals the beginning of ballet season, and the excitement for Carolina Ballet 2019-20 schedule was palpable on opening night. The lobby of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh, NC, reflected the same type of changes that the Ballet is undergoing this year: a freshening, some new accoutrements, some recognizable faces, and some “Ooh, I didn’t see that coming” changes. The best part was the dancing itself.
The Carolina Ballet is back, and it’s embodying all of its traditions as well as bursting with a bright and shiny newness. When a new artistic director steps in to lead a ballet, Triangle ticket buyers expect changes, and those changes are sometimes inspired by a great collaboration. Robert Weiss, the ballet’s founding artistic director/CEO since 1997, stepped back to allow Zalman Raffael to fill his role, yet Weiss’ hand is still visible in the choreography of four of the evening’s ballets. Raffael and Weiss’ artistic partnership has gotten richer, even while switching roles, and it’s a joy to see.
The signature ballet of the evening, George Balanchine’s Rubies, with music by Igor Stravinsky, is also last in the dance lineup, a small portion of the evening though the ballet was originally written as a part of the larger program, Jewels. It’s a plotless ballet, meaning that we watch the dancers dance rather than trying to follow a storyline.
The curtain opens to the troupe on pointe, their ruby- red costumes gleaming against the backdrop, a smattering of red stars behind them, then Raleigh native and principal Ashley Hathaway steps forward for a solo, guided by the four men in the troupe: Keenan English, Nicholas Fokine, Maxmilian Isaacson, and Bilal Smith. She’s lovely, her movements refined, and her partners support her well.
The perfectly matched pair of principals, Margaret Severin-Hansen and Yevgeny Shlapko, light up the stage in their pas de deux in an often comical, very audience-approachable manner. It’s kind of a disappointment that we don’t see more of them, though their strong partnering is a delight; and the cheekiness of their interpretation makes us wonder if this truly is a plotless ballet.
Yet even though this is a wonderfully danced piece, Rubies is not the star of the evening. The first ballet, simply titled A Classical Ballet, with music by Prokofiev and choreography by Robert Weiss, also opens with the troupe on pointe, and the resultant tableau brings an appreciative murmur from the audience. With solos by the mesmerizing Alyssa Pilger and Richard Krusch in the first movement and Courtney Schenberger (a soloist who knows how to connect with an audience) and Kiefer Curtis (always a high-leaping partner) in the second, it’s a beautifully performed piece.
The third piece, Stravinsky PDD, also choreographed by Weiss, features Miles Sollars-White and Lily Wills, in an oddly discordant dance piece that requires a lot of mirrored movements that require exactness and specific detail, but the duo has great chemistry and created some abstract angles with their bodies. They should dance together more often.
Then, there’s the fourth piece, Bariolage, with music by Shinji Eshima, who took an onstage bow, and choreography by Weiss, and Zalman Raffael. It’s a fascinating piece, featuring two couples (Jan Burkhard, Sam Ainley, Marcelo Martinez, and Sokvannara Sar) who moved in and out of each other’s love spaces in an emotionally charged manner. Arising from themes of gender and identity, Bariolage is a ballet that runs along deep metaphorical lines that are rich and often heartbreaking. Ironically, the word bariolage actually refers to a bowed string instrument musical technique, and the French translation of the word means “multicolored.” The piece reflected so much more than that. It is beautifully painful.
But the star of the evening was the second ballet, which is entitled Meditation from Thais, and featured music by Jules Massenet and choreography by Robert Weiss. The piece is a gorgeous pas de deux that is both meditative and romantic. Danced masterfully by Lara O’Brien and Marcelo Martinez, both in white leotards, the elegance, sensuality, and pure skill in this piece made the audience collectively hold its breath.
O’Brien’s shapes and incredible extension were matched and reflected by Martinez, who, in this writer’s opinion, is the strongest male in the Carolina Ballet. His partnership with O’Brien is so complete and strong that it often seems like they are one person. They are not only impeccable dancers, but their passion and their embodiment of the life within the music/choreography is why we come to the ballet. Perfection. This is one of the best pieces that the Carolina Ballet has staged in years.
After that piece ended, several audience members were overheard saying, “That was worth the price of the ticket. We can go home now.”
The long and short of it is that, even though Rubies was supposed to be the star of this year’s opening night for the Carolina Ballet, the true brilliance is in the breadth of offerings and the scope of what’s to come during Zalman Raffael’s first season at the artistic helm of this talented company.
The Carolina Ballet presents George Balanchine’s RUBIES at 8 p.m. Sept. 13, 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 14, 2 p.m. Sept. 15, 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 21, 2 p.m. Sept. 22, 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 28, and 2 p.m. Sept. 29 in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
Carolina Ballet Box Office: 919-719-0900 or https://www.carolinaballet.com/get-tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/369155/836166.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-719-0900 or https://www.carolinaballet.com/tickets/special-rates/.
SHOW: https://www.carolinaballet.com/2019-2020-season/rubies/, https://www.facebook.com/events/402395547037833/, and https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/rubies-carolina-ballet.
2019-20 SEASON: https://www.carolinaballet.com/season/.
PRESENTER: http://www.carolinaballet.com/, https://www.facebook.com/CarolinaBallet, https://twitter.com/carolinaballet, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolina_Ballet.
Zalman Raffael (Carolina Ballet‘s artistic director): http://zalmanraffael.com/ (official website) and https://www.carolinaballet.com/zalman-raffael/ (Carolina Ballet bio).
Robert Weiss (Carolina Ballet‘s founding artistic director and choreographer): https://www.carolinaballet.com/robert-weiss/ (Carolina Ballet bio) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Weiss_(choreographer) (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.