When an evening of ballet includes music like perennial favorites George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the audience knows already that they’re in for a treat, but what the Carolina Ballet’s patrons got with the opening night of Rhapsody in Blue, was a gift tied up in a brilliant diamond-blue bow.
Carolina Ballet artistic director Zalman Raffael offers a welcome and a reminder that this ballet begins the second half of the season; but most importantly, he shares that the Ballet has lost soloist, Wei Ni, and that to honor his passing, Rhapsody in Blue will be dedicated to him. It appears from that moment that the dancers are committed to giving some of the best performances of the season.
The program opens with Symposium (The Masks of Dionysos), with music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Robert Weiss. In the program, Weiss notes that Bernstein said that The Symposium’s “music, like the dialogue, is series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet.” Each of the movements in Weiss’ choreography follows Bernstein’s lead; and though the music wasn’t meant originally for a ballet, Weiss’ artistic genius has made it one of the most interesting programs of the season.
Soloist Sokvannara Sar plays Dionysos; and whenever he’s on stage, all eyes are on him. He instantly evokes the realization that his job as Dionysos is to tie together the whole ballet. With a manner of dancing that is almost casual, he embodies the character, exuding a nonchalance and a warmth that befits the god of wine and pleasure.
Throughout the five speeches and conclusion that create the Symposium and showcase other great Greeks, such as Aristophanes and Socrates, supporting dancers fill the stage and often steal a bit of the spotlight. Alyssa Pilger and Kiefer Curtis perform a lovely pas de deux in the Second Speech, beautifully in sync and sharing a chemistry that appears to make dancing their story easy. Some of their lifts are complicated, while other parts of the ballet rely on shapes and angles, all of which are accomplished with grace.
A quick and cute pas de deux, featuring principal Jayson Pescasio and company member McKenzie Van Oss, follows for the Third Speech. They are paired well and dance sharply. We hope to see more of this duo in the future since this piece didn’t give them enough time on stage.
The pas de deux stars of this ballet are the married partners and principals Margaret Severin-Hansen and Richard Krusch. Their passionate dance is punctuated with extraordinary lifts, super-long extensions, and the undeniable chemistry that they share. Seamless, graceful, elegant.
In the Fifth Speech, Taylor Ayotte plays Diotima, a seer whom Socrates visits and who offers a speech on the demonology of love. The music and dance in this piece range from a slow, mysterious beginning to something like a drunken revelry. This is, perhaps, the weakest piece of the evening. Ayotte often appears unbalanced, and the partnership with Sar is a struggle that doesn’t appear to be rehearsed.
The second ballet of the evening, choreographed by Robert Weiss, is set to the music of George Gershwin’s “Lullaby,” written in 1919, when Gershwin was still a student. The choreography is lively, bright, and full of personality; and Weiss found exactly the right duo to dance it on stage.
Playing a set of new parents who appear to be chasing that ever-elusive moment of peace and quiet, Jan Burkhard and Yevgeny Shlapko create a sweet and lovely couple. Burkhard’s dancing bespeaks a later Gershwin piece and a young Leslie Caron, exhibiting the same lightness and carefree attitude.
Another strong duo during the evening’s ballets is Ashley Hathaway and Sam Ainley, who dance through the haunting notes of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Ainley has proven in past ballets that he’s a strong partner, and it’s evident once again. One lift required him to push Hathaway from a waist position into the air, almost as one would a set of barbells, and the audience held its collective breath.
Ainley not only completed that lift successfully, but many others that were equally as difficult, and all without one bit of strain on his face or visible shaking. Hathaway is a beautiful dancer with expressive arms who’s able to move fluidly and to lengthen her shapes. Together, they are enough to elicit a whispered “wow” from several audience members.
The piece de resistance of the evening is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with choreography by Zalman Raffael. From the moment that the light shines on principal Lara O’Brien in light blue and diamond sparkles, the music becomes magic-personified in dance.
O’Brien is the star of the evening, and her moments onstage outshine everyone who shares the boards with her. She is beautiful, elegant, full of joie de vivre but not over the top. She commands the stage, filling it with amazing jetés, perfect pirouettes, and arabesques, when dancing solo.
Other highlights of the Rhapsody include Lily Wills and Marcelo Martinez, who dance a pas de deux that opens up the sky. They come close to competing with O’Brien during the ballet, but no matter how well anyone else dances, she simply outshines them.
All said and done, the evening is filled with moments that make the program one of the best of the season and stunningly beautiful. Worth watching again, and definitely worth taking your loved one this Valentine’s season.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 29th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/rhapsody-blue-duke-energy-center-february-2020/; and Jan. 21st Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Melissa Howsam: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article239447093.html.
The Carolina Ballet presents George Gershwin’s RHAPSODY IN BLUE at 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 1, 2 p.m. Feb. 2, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 8, 2 p.m. Feb. 9, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 15, and 2 p.m. Feb. 16 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/rhapsody-in-blue/, https://www.facebook.com/events/746125902471274/, and https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/rhapsody-blue-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): https://www.carolinaballet.com/robert-weiss/ (Carolina Ballet bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/robert-weiss-87951 (Internet Broadway Database), 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/.