Review: Dancers dazzle in ‘Coppélia,’ ‘Carmen’ renditions

Review by Jane Vranish

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Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer

It’s particularly satisfying when the music plays a substantial role in driving an evening of dance.

Of course, there is no doubt that Charlotte Ballet Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Grant Cooper put a great deal of thought into all of their collaborations. But the balance of Tuesday night’s performance in the Amphitheater was particularly satisfying, ranging from the charm of Léo Delibes’ Coppélia and the passion of Georges Bizet’s Carmen to the oddly primal scream buried in Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin.

Bonnefoux listed George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova as the inspiration for his buoyant Coppélia abstract. Balanchine’s influence on the Charlotte artistic director has always been apparent, as it was here, bringing out Bonnefoux’ innate musicality. And the Balanchine/Danilova version is the most popular version currently being performed in the United States.

Bonnefoux chose five segments — a bright Mazurka led by an equally bright Sarah Hayes Harkins (Swanhilda) and Joshua Hall (Franz), a set of variations for the women, an athletic dance for the men, the central pas de deux and a finale.

They didn’t convey the comic story of the love triangle between a young peasant couple and a toymaker’s life-sized doll. Rather, they captured the spirit of this fun-filled production and the tuneful score of one of ballet’s most underrated composers.

The pas de deux, of course, was a highlight — although hampered by a weak viola solo in the adagio — particularly with Harkins’ pinpoint turns in the alternating pirouettes and double circle of piqués.

But it was the way that Bonnefoux paid tribute to Danilova, a prima ballerina who taught at Balanchine’s school and helped to define his technique, that was so fetching. That segment was based on Danilova’s recollections of her early career performing the Marius Petipa version in Russia and while touring with the Ballets Russes, where she performed Swanhilda to great acclaim. The theme and variations lent themselves to a pert display of solos and duets between Harkins and her six “friends.”

Last year, Chautauqua audience members saw a preview of Sasha Janes’ Carmen, where it was full of the flamenco fire evoked in the traditional Bizet score. But when it premiered in Charlotte last October, the story line had been given a regional flavor. Although the tobacco factory background of the original might have worked in North Carolina, Janes transformed the familiar work into another piece of Charlotte history, the textile strike of the 1930s.

This season Chautauqua saw excerpts from that premiere, a hybrid work in many respects. Janes had inserted portions of the more contemporary Carmen score by Rodion Shchedrin, punctuated with percussive elements. It worked well, seamlessly moving back and forth between the two. (And apparently he added a touch of bluegrass in Charlotte, not heard here.)

However, there was still the undeniable Spanish flavor of the music, on the whole played well by the orchestra despite some intonation problems in the strings and a few misses in the brass. So the audience had to suspend that notion in watching the Southern characters unfold — Don José became Joe (Naseeb Culpepper), a National Guardsman, and Escamillo went from bullfighter to a Textile Mill League baseball star, Miller (Pete Leo Walker).

The success or failure of this interpretation will have to wait for a viewing of the full production. As it was, Janes kept Tuesday night’s performance chamber-sized, concentrating instead on the leading characters and telling his tale mostly through duets. So the period costumes, nicely done by Jennifer Symes, would primarily serve to establish that bygone era.

Janes conveyed the seduction in a pair of duets for Carmen, played by a wildly erotic Anna Gerberich, whose extensions drew gasps from the crowd, and Joe. Micaela (Harkins) entered, and, in a lovely episode from Joe’s past, ended with a backward swoop of a lift.

Those moments were the most complete as the segments grew to include friends and escalating tensions, but the drama itself did not gain the power it could have in a full-fledged presentation. Janes left the climax to a final duet, so sensual, which tapped the ever-tangible chemistry between Gerberich and Walker.

But their kiss was hardly the drama-dripping finish we expected. How does it end? That will have to wait for another time.

Speaking of endings, Mark Diamond often takes on the task of creating epic works designed to heighten the dance experience for audiences. This time, he afforded the audience a rare opportunity to hear Bartók’s Mandarin, so difficult, yet the orchestra’s best effort of the night.

The original conveys an urban landscape, complete with honking horns, and uses obvious Asian influences through the use of pentatonic scales. Yet Diamond chose to make this a veritable Polynesian “Rite of Spring,” complete with wild dancing and human sacrifices. (A note: Mandarin was composed five years after Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite,” found in the obvious similarities between rhythms and meter.)

Called “Children of Paradise,” it surprisingly worked better than expected musically. But the natives themselves were certainly restless, led by a savage Walker. With a cast of 27, it was easy to imagine primitive ritual ceremonies, capped by a human volcano, although the reasoning for Walker to suddenly leap to his own death remained unclear.

However primitive, though, there should have been more control over the movement. Instead the dancers simply let loose, making for a messy effect. For those in the audience who still dreamt of an unfettered tropical paradise, it would have to remain in their own imagination.

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

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