Theater review: Charlotte Ballet's Fall Works

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Turnover is a reality in most businesses, sometimes a necessity. In recent years, it hasn’t been at all unusual for Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Charlotte Ballet to welcome three or four new dancers into its ranks after watching an equal number land a jeté into other troupes around the country – or into teaching, choreography, retirement, or parenthood. Transitions became so smooth at the Queen City’s pre-eminent performing arts troupe that I could view the newcomers as reinforcements. And the process? I called it reloading rather than rebuilding.

This season is different. Less than 18 months after changing its name from NC Dance Theatre, Charlotte Ballet opened its 2015-16 season with nine new dancers that weren’t on its roster last year. On top of that, the opening night of Fall Works came less than three weeks after Bonnefoux announced that he would fading away to emeritus status at the end of next season, with a new artistic director to be named next spring or summer. Pardon me, but I’d call all of that a reboot.
Sasha Janes' The Four Seasons w/ Alessandra Ball James and David Morse (Photo Peter Zay)
  • Sasha Janes' The Four Seasons w/ Alessandra Ball James and David Morse (Photo Peter Zay)

Last week’s program gave us another preliminary chance to compare the new company with the old in revivals of Bonnefoux’s well-traveled Shindig, last presented here in 2009, and Jiří Kylián’s Forgotten Land, which was first brought to Charlotte in April 2014, the day before NCDT changed its name. Set to Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and inspired by an Edvard Munch painting, Forgotten Land benefited from a simpler pre-recorded intro that was shown on a retracting projection screen.

Instead of navigating through the connections between Kylián’s choreography, Britten’s elegy for the receding East Anglia coastline, and Munch’s imagery – not closely matched by the costume designs – we could concentrate on the colors of John F. Macfarlane’s costumes. These three basic colors, worn by three different couples, represented the progression of youth to old age: white, red, and black. We actually saw these couples in reverse order, but each couple had a paler, less vivid, and less energetic couple in the sequence – fainter echoes in gray, pink, and eggshell.

After an extended dance of innocence from the dancers in white, we didn’t circle back to the reminiscing dancers in black. Instead, the entire 12-person ensemble gathered for what I’d call an anguished celebration of life. Then in a moving coda, the three vividly clad women were all alone onstage, faced away from us, moving toward McFarlane’s somber set design, a wide ocean wave eternally poised to break onshore in semi-darkness. Seeing it all for a second time, I found the quiet emotional acceptance of Kylián’s women reminiscent of the haunting resignation that suffuses John Millington Synge’s poetic drama, Riders to the Sea.

Pete Leo Walker was at his charismatic apex when he partnered with the sensuous Melissa Anduiza as the black-clad protagonists two years ago, but there was no lack of command or flair at Knight Theater when 10-season veteran Alessandra Ball James and newcomer James Kopecky replaced the escapees. Half of the couples were partnered exactly as they had been in 2014, Sarah Hayes Harkins with Addul Manzano, Chelsea Dumas with Josh Hall, and Jamie Dee Clifton with David Morse. So aside from the richer perspective provided by the intro, differences between the two performances were not at all cataclysmic.

No, the difference between now and then was most pronounced when we reached the elbows-up, kick-up-your-heels Shindig, Bonnefoux’s most frequently performed work after his annual Nutcracker. There’s a high-spirited yee-ha merriment to this piece, a shedding of balletic formality, that this 16-person ensemble didn’t quite capture on opening night. Jitters? I’m not sure whether the abandon that’s needed is attained until you reach the point when counting the beats and remembering the steps is no longer a chore.

Fortunately, between the two ensemble segments there are five smaller tableaux where one to four dancers are called upon to shine, and the live bluegrass music of the Greasy Beans quintet – featuring the hot fiddling exploits of Cailen Campbell and the unflagging bonhomie of guitarist/vocalist Josh Haddix – was a constant exhilaration. Extra musical helpings came with the curtain down as the Forbidden Land scenery was dismantled.

In the smaller Shindig segments, Clifton, James, Hall, and Harkins reasserted themselves. Among the newcomers, Amelia Sturt-Dilley aced her showcase, and in an all-male hoedown quartet, Kopecky and Ryo Suzuki flashed some more of their personality alongside Manzano and Morse.

If the rebooted company hasn’t completely acclimated to Bonnefoux’s festive Appalachia, they showed no such discomfort with Sasha Janes’s new setting for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s an intriguing collaborative effort that we’re likely to see again in years to come. While some of Christopher Ash’s seasonal projection designs were hackneyed animations from Stock Photoville, Aimee J. Coleman’s costume concepts became more and more amazing, peaking in the final “Fall” and “Winter” sections.

All 15 of the dancers were dressed in autumnal orange as we headed into “Fall,” but the women’s outfits were highlighted by what would normally be called tear-away skirts. These skirts were capable of standing by themselves and forming wee cone-like dwellings, becoming part of the scenery when guys weren’t wrapping them around the shoulders of their partners.

Coleman’s crystalline winter costumes were hardly anticlimactic, the most formal of her designs. The women’s dresses were regally white, fit for a palace in a traditional Russian ballet, and newcomer Raven graced the most regal of them all. Barkley made her spectacular entrance mounting a flight of stairs that rose from the orchestra pit. Nor were the men’s costumes any less spectacular – long thin full-sleeved coats, that were even more Russian in flavor, military in their formality, and sacramental in their white purity.

Vivaldi’s winter may have been Italian, but Janes and Coleman were clearly adding some Russian dressing. When snowflakes began fluttering down on the ensemble from the flyloft, Janes and the 2015-16 edition of Charlotte Ballet managed to magically transform the Venetian Vivaldi into a Yuletide Tchaikovsky. 

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