Jane Vranish | Guest Reviewer
Romance is driven by passion, excitement and even mystery in our lives. It is something to which we can all aspire (often with some regularity), making it a natural impetus for North Carolina Dance Theatre’s final performance at the Amphitheater on Saturday night.
NCDT, buoyed by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Grant Cooper, rapturously dove into Beethoven, the classically trained composer who forged a gateway to a new era with his bold creativity, Rachmaninoff, whose unparalleled melodies captured the heart, and Johann Strauss II, also known as “The Waltz King,” who claimed the title with his ecstatic take on an intimate dance.
Ironically, George Balanchine generally avoided certain composers because their music had such a complex structure that they stood on their own. One was Mozart, a rule Balanchine only broke late in his career when he created “Mozartiana” in 1981 for his iconic muse, Suzanne Farrell. It would be his last great masterpiece.
The other was Beethoven, whose music he complete avoided. But despite a continued reverence for Balanchine’s opinion, some contemporary choreographers still have been lured to his rhythmically vibrant seventh symphony, which German composer Wagner called “the apotheosis of the dance,” and other works.
The seventh has its own lively scherzo movement and seems to be somewhat accessible. Instead NCDT’s Mark Diamond opted for another scherzo from the second movement of Beethoven’s glorious ninth, the symphony that opened new paths for others composers of his time, and a monumental composition.
Beethoven passion here was translated into a myriad of meters and punctuated not only by outbreaks from the tympani, but abject silence. It could have its own mountain to climb for choreographers, although Diamond apparently likes the challenge because he has already set all but the final movement from Beethoven’s masterpiece.
The ballet, simply called “Scherzo,” stood alone to open the program. The second movement has, despite the key of D minor, its own ebullient nature. However, Diamond used the minor key as a launching pad for a trip to the dark side (although it also has to be noted that the first movement ends in a funeral march).
That would explain the women’s black costumes and the gathering storm of movement, where the women’s arabesques flashed like lightning bolts and the men swirled about the stage like huge gusts of wind. Diamond’s concept worked on its own in this ballet, certainly one of his best, as he took the energy from the music and harnessed it.
It also helped to have Alessandra Ball at the center of this vortex, a sorceress of magnetic power who confronted the audience at the start, whipping the dancers into a frenzy by her sheer presence and emerging triumphant at the end ravishingly similar to ballet’s Black Swan.
Sasha Janes’ premiere, “Rhapsodic Dances,” took on Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” a work of romping virtuosity laid down with effortless expertise by pianist Arkadiy Figlin and the orchestra.
Janes set out to create a dashing showpiece for the company, a must since Rachmaninoff unleashes an ongoing cascade of 24 variations. But many of them pass by at flashing speed, a difficult task to construct a coherent work for an audience that has little time to comprehend it all.
The key was to choreograph fluid transitions and here some worked while others didn’t. But on the whole, Janes had a sprightly tie to the music — the woman piquant en pointe, a pendular lift that swung into a penche arabesque, a circular pattern that abruptly changed direction.
The quieter sections, however, didn’t fill the musical framework. Janes used prayerful positions to appropriately acknowledge Rachmaninoff’s use of the medieval hymn “Dies Irae.” But the movement itself was too literal. Likewise with Traci Gilchrest’s solo to the 18th variation, one of Rachmaninoff’s most famous melodies, which needed something more sublime than removing a tutu. There was a deep meaning there, as Gilchrest glanced poignantly at the other ballerinas as they pranced offstage and then seemed to ruminate in her own memories. The music begged for something more.
Despite a few opening night problems with precision that could clutter the choreographic effect, the performers could still revel in the dance, particularly in Jamie Dee’s lacy solo, the men’s tight-knit ensemble work and, most of all, the dazzling series of turns for Anna Gerberich and Ball.
For a first time attempt at a full company piece, Janes showed that he has a full comprehension of ballet technique and the vision to embrace a higher standard, hopefully an indication of things to come.
The program and the season ended with an encore presentation of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s “July’s Delight,” still so in the middle of August. This time around it as yet was a bit of a Strauss patchwork, with one awkwardly long pause and two repetitious orchestra interludes, where it needs some other fresh material.
But sorbet, even in a ballet flavor, can be fun. Kudos to the students, who were featured in the opening march and set the audience to rhythmic clapping as they crisply marked time, then came back to latch on to a frolicking polka.
After a second viewing, youthful vigor seemed to be the idea behind this Bonnefoux bauble. So Ball and Gilchrest, who bring so many emotional layers to their roles, didn’t have a chance to stretch themselves in Ball’s teasing dance among three suitors and Gilchrest’s cutesy engagement with Addul Manzano.
But the “Blue Danube” finale still held its own, the stage awash with couples dressed in blue gowns and black tuxedos. They were still waltzing late into a star-filled night as the lights came down — what more romantic notion could there be?
Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contibuting writer. Her stories can be read on the dance blog “Cross Currents” at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.