Reworking art: CSO and Charlotte Ballet collaborate to put new spin on old classics

By Cortney Linnecke & Will Rubin | Staff Writers

Peter Zay Photography
Charlotte Ballet’s Melissa Anduiza and Naseeb Culpepper in Carmen. Anna Gerberich will play the title character in tonight’s staging.

Despite museums and galleries around the world taking extensive precautions to protect the masterpieces of artistic legend, the unthinkable can happen. Paintings smudge, statues break and priceless vases crash to the floor.

More often than not, the end result is still identifiable to the naked eye. The art is still a representation of its noble origins, but people argue as to whether the meaning or message has been irreparably changed.

Tonight, the Charlotte Ballet and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra are putting their thumbprint on two of the dance world’s most revered compositions.

At 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, the show will offer patrons an opportunity to extend themselves beyond their comfort zones.

Tonight’s evening represents a meshing together of dance and symphony, of tradition and innovation, and more than anything else, a push for inter-arts collaboration within Chautauqua Institution.

“We’re taking masterpieces from the past and showing them as a thing that’s changing based on a 21st-century view of it,” said Grant Cooper, guest conductor of tonight’s performance. “It’s an exciting thing for an artist to say because it means their art is relevant and meaningful for all time.”


The evening’s triple bill kicks off with the centuries-old Coppélia suite, a single dance movement choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of Chautauqua Dance. Coppélia is a sort of comic ballet whose infamous plotline weaves the tale of a doll maker who crafts a life-sized doll, the eponymous Coppélia.

A local man named Franz, tonight portrayed by Joshua Hall, falls in love with Coppélia and thus spurns his true love, Swanhilda, danced en pointe by Sarah Hayes Harkins. Swanhilda ultimately tricks Franz by dressing up as the doll in an attempt to teach him a lesson and save him from the ulterior motives of the doll maker.

“This particular version is sort of based off a Balanchine version that was danced several years ago,” Janes said. “But it is an original version that Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has done. It’s kind of a sweet story.”

The music for Coppélia, as with Carmen and “Children of Paradise,” will be an exercise in balancing modern views with classic compositions. Cooper says that tonight’s rendition of Coppélia will involve some “slight rearranging” of the musical concept.

“To me, it’s very exciting because it speaks to the universality of art forms and how many different ways there are to look at a given piece,” he said. “It’s a constantly evolving thing according to the creative minds of the people putting it on. It’s living art.”

Excerpts from Carmen

The second piece of the evening features Janes’ choreography in excerpts from Carmen, the Georges Bizet opera written in 1875. The original opera is set in the early 1800s and unfolds against the background of a tobacco factory in Seville, Spain. It details the rivalry of Don José, the corporal of dragoons, and Escamillo, a bullfighter, as they vie for the love of the same woman, Carmen.

Audience members familiar with the original opera may be confused, then, when Don José, redubbed “Joe,” waltzes onstage in a National Guard uniform and Escamillo, renamed “Miller,” shows up wearing a baseball jersey.

“I suppose there would be people who say that Bizet’s Carmen is a certified masterpiece; you don’t take Michelangelo’s statue and recarve it,” Cooper said. “They say it should be presented in their original form. But of course, that’s not the way the world is.”

And that’s not the way Janes works. He decided to wield his creative license and carve up Bizet’s opera by re-inventing it in 1930s North Carolina. He was intrigued by the political movements of the time, with the start of the New Deal and the formation of the National Recovery Administration.

The creation of the NRA ultimately led to workers’ rights abuses in the textile mills, as laborers experienced wage decreases and deteriorating work conditions. Political turmoil came to a head in 1934, when North Carolina textile workers went on strike and the National Guard was called in to protect the mills from unruly strikers.

This is the powder keg world in which Janes choreographed his ballet. He refashioned Carmen into a seductive and fiery leader of the textile strike, Joe into a National Guard officer and Miller into a famous baseball player.

Textile mills in the 1930s developed competitive, semi-professional baseball teams, and “lint heads” — all-star baseball players, like Miller — developed huge fan bases. In this way, Janes was able to propel the character Miller to the same level of stardom as Escamillo, the original opera’s famed bullfighter.

It may seem a far cry at times from Bizet’s original vision of Carmen, but those in charge of tonight’s artistic direction have full faith in the viability of their translation.

“I have an enormous amount of respect for the talents of our choreographers and their ability to select music that yields to this kind of approach,” Cooper said. “The way I go into it is that I let go completely from the idea of Carmen as an opera and it being sung on stage. I’m excited about the fact that we’re able to see these old masterworks, these iconic pieces, being shown in a new light.”

Cooper’s is the same train of thought that Janes adopted when choreographing for the revamped storyline. He sees tonight’s translation of Carmen as a good thing, as an opportunity to revisit a classic opera through a new lens.

“It lined up perfectly,” Janes said of the way his plotline coincided with historical facts. “It was a perfect parallel story to make it North Carolina in 1934. It just fell into place.”

Janes’ full re-creation of Carmen runs just over an hour, but tonight’s excerpts clock in at roughly 20 minutes. The role of Carmen will be danced by Anna Gerberich en pointe, Joe will be portrayed by Naseeb Culpepper, and Miller will be danced by Pete Leo Walker. The other primary female character — Joe’s childhood sweetheart, Micaela — will be captured en pointe by Sarah Hayes Harkins.

Children of Paradise

“Children of Paradise” is the evening’s finale performance, a ballet number choreographed by Mark Diamond.  Diamond said that he originally created the work for Chautauqua’s Festival and Apprentice dancers, but that it has now transformed into a company piece.

Last performed for the public in 2010, the Charlotte Ballet will revive the ballet tonight with the help of both select festival and apprentice dancers. It’s a chance for not only the dancers but the musical performers to realize a vision rarely seen.

“[Tonight’s show] gives Chautauquans the opportunity to see the full talents and styles of ballet that the Charlotte Ballet is capable of,” Cooper said. “These musical moments occur in so many wonderful possibilities, and this is just one of those possibilities.”

Diamond’s ballet channels a unique cultural vibe, a sort of blend between Oceanic and Eastern cultures. He said the dance encompasses traditional focal points of such cultures, like rituals of sacrifice and attention to the natural world.

“I wanted to really work with the music in this dance,” he said, describing how he got the inspiration behind the movement. “It draws on Polynesian culture, the early culture of the Mali people … it’s very indigenous.”

Diamond described his ballet as a Polynesian version of the “Rite of Spring,” a ballet originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to orchestral music composed by Igor Stravinsky. But while Diamond may have drawn upon these artists for inspiration, the choreography he’s presenting is entirely his own.

In fact, he may even have a few surprises up his sleeve.

“There will be a volcano,” he said, but wouldn’t elaborate on whether the volcano would be an actual prop or an abstract product of the dancers. “I’m not telling you any more than that.”