Guest review by Jane Vranish
Katie McLean | Staff Photographer
Anna Gerberich dances as “The Voice of Reason” in the North Carolina Dance Theatre production “The Decision Maker,” choreographed by Chautauqua Dance associate artistic director Mark Diamond, Saturday evening in the Amphitheater.
This has been the summer of Sasha.
While it is hard to predict the ultimate success of a choreographer, especially one who has been at his craft for only six years, certainly Sasha Janes may be the one to elevate North Carolina Dance Theatre to another level.
Chautauquans have been privy to no less than eight Janes ballets for both NCDT and also the School of Dance — five of them premieres, a huge achievement in itself.
But more impressively, Janes has tackled such a wide array of subjects, from a child-like playground fantasy to a tango and an astute, empathetic observation on the human condition to an abstract, angular duo, all without losing his structural sense.
It is so important for young choreographers (and Janes is still young by choreographic standards) to have the opportunity to seek out and experiment with movement. Certainly artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who possesses his own choreographic talent, is furnishing that stage for Janes to grow.
And credit Chautauqua Institution for its support of NCDT, which provides the summer population with such a vast lineup of new ballets, also including the works of Mark Diamond, Chautauqua Dance’s associate artistic director. (Is any other American company doing this?)
Chautauqua is lucky to participate in the development of a potentially significant choreographer. Janes was born in Australia and has deep, imaginative cultural roots that may play a factor in his burgeoning artistic vision. There is no doubt that each of Janes’ ballets has had an interesting and worthy perspective.
For the season’s final program, Janes offered a substantial take on Carmen, played with a chewy verve by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under conductor Grant Cooper. The score, an arrangement not so far from the original, might have been traditional, but Janes took a decidedly contemporary road for his premiere on Saturday night.
For that reason, this Carmen might have benefited from the percussive score by Rodion Shchedrin — so boldly rhythmic yet so spare, a dazzling synthesis of musical elements ultimately suitable for ballet.
So was the subject of Carmen, whose title character was played with a voluptuous suppleness by Melissa Anduiza. The Spanish attitude was there, playing out in the arch of the back, in the arms that curled like smoke from a cigarette. However, Janes could have made more use of complex rhythmic pointe work — tantalizingly related to flamenco’s stabbing footwork — rather than allow his Carmen to meander excessively around the stage.
Already this ballet was very exciting, with high-flying lifts as if the women wore capes, and Janes hit all the dramatic peaks in the story. He could have fleshed out the characters more if he had so chosen. Pete Walker was perfect as Don José but deserved a solo that better detailed his descent into madness. Of the supporting characters, only Micaëla, a sweet Anna Gerberich, stood out in a duet with Walker. Others, like Frasquita, Mercédès and Dancaïre, blended with the ensemble.
Then, too, Carmen’s trip to jail was full of lifts and too long to serve a dramatic purpose, accompanied, as she was, by a quartet of soldiers. And I can only surmise that the awkward orchestral interlude where the dancers simply left the stage will be put to better use in future performances, perhaps with projections of a bullfight.
So right now, this Carmen hovered between the traditionally dramatic, where the characterizations drove the story, and more impressionistic stylization, where those aspects were pared down to the elements of the dance. I would like to see the latter in capturing the duende — soul — of the flamenco when Janes stages this Carmen for NCDT’s mainstage season this fall.
Diamond, on the other hand, chose to deliver “The Decision Maker,” which he first choreographed for a female cast and presumably on a different subject. Although the score, set to Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” has always had a driving urgency underneath its crystalline sound, it didn’t really have the power to support a mostly male ensemble.
I would think that a political ballet (and I’m thinking of Kurt Jooss’ 1932 classic, The Green Table) would need a weighty contemporary atmosphere to reinforce the subject matter as well.
So the dramatic arc was palpable in this work, with its tensions between a President (Naseeb Culpepper), his Secretary of Defense (David Morse) and the Voice of Reason (Gerberich). Who was in control? Who would win in the end? Or for the moment?
But they never connected, say, by whispering in each others’ ears, leaning in or even looking at each other. Along with four cabinet members, the dancers postured or demonstrated individual strengths.
When the ending came, it was still a shock, a tribute to the cast that might have fluctuated in their political roles but remained committed to the dance.
NCDT couldn’t go wrong with George Balanchine’s “Western Symphony,” as sophisticated a finale as you’ll ever find, especially when staged by Patricia McBride, a star in her heyday at New York City Ballet and now a master teacher for the School of Dance.
The audience took a turn down “Red River Valley” into George Balanchine’s idea of the wild, wild West, rife with sashaying saloon girls and a passel of all-American men. They rode along with the orchestra and its fiddling wizard and concertmaster Brian Reagin (who also scored with the Vivaldi).
This ballet might be a sparkling combination of good fun (with ballerinas as a team of horses) and good humor (some Swan Lake quotes), but it was undeniably citified with a sophisticated assortment of dance steps. (Of course, though, there was that spot where the cast galloped like herds of cattle around the stage.)
Kudos to the cast, many of them plucked from the talented School of Dance, led by an effervescent Sarah Hayes Watson, a beautifully controlled Jamie Dee and the piquant Gerberich with the cowboy spirit of Walker, Joshua Hall and Gregory Taylor.
Collectively, they assembled the trademark brio that McBride has always exuded, providing a step back in time in several ways and so appropriate for Chautauqua.
Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contributing writer. Her stories can be read on the dance blog “Cross Currents” at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.