Balancing act: Cooper, CSO lead ballet in visualizing classics

BRIA GRANVILLE | Staff Photographer
Charlotte Ballet dancers Sarah Hayes Harkins and David Morse are featured in tonight’s performance with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. in the Amphitheater.

Story by Morgan Kinney and Hayley Ross

Coordinating ballet with symphony is a puzzle that involves balancing visual and musical aspects of performance.

Guest conductor Grant Cooper said what’s usually a conceptual balancing act becomes very real when a group is in the Amphitheater.

“The concrete floor of the Amp in front of the stage is so that, if you are sitting on a chair designed for a flat-surface, then the chair is on an angle,” Cooper said. “There’s definitely adjustments that have to be made.”

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Charlotte Ballet team up at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amp. Four works will be presented, with only one originally composed for ballet. These works by Édouard Lalo, Jean Sibelius, Antonio Vivaldi and Beethoven have been specifically chosen for Chautauqua.

Cooper and the CSO are responsible for providing the music — and tempo — for the dancers as they glide across the stage. He said the conductor serves as the link between the stage and the pit, and it’s his job to make sure the choreography is represented in the instrumentation.

If a conductor is not careful, what’s intended to be a single concert can quickly devolve into two separate performances.

Cooper said he’s here to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“Ballet conducting is the hardest conducting there is,” he said. “I’m the translator, so to speak.”

What’s curious about tonight’s program is how he must play translator for something like Beethoven Symphony No. 9, usually an orchestra standard. But the added visual element is more than welcome — it’s about improving something that’s already great, he said.

“What the Charlotte Ballet choreographers are doing more and more is using music not to tell a story, but rather to create a vehicle for the ballet dancers to demonstrate their art — it becomes a new thing, a new art form,” Cooper said.


Mark Diamond, associate artistic director of Chautauqua Dance, is very familiar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the music from which his piece “Adagio” is danced to. He choreographed to both the first movement, the “Maestoso,” and the second movement, the “Scherzo.” The piece in tonight’s performance is the “Adagio” movement.

He said he someday hopes to combine all three into an evening-length work finished out by Beethoven’s last movement, the famous “Ode to Joy.” Although each of these movements have been choreographed as different ballets, they all have a running costume thread. Each has the same dress, with different length of skirt and in a different color. “Adagio” is a peaceful powder blue, a color that Diamond thinks reflects the peacefulness of the movement and the music.

The ballet begins the same way that it ends: women creating a circle, a representation of the cycle of life. The lead female dancer, Chelsea Dumas, emerges from the circle and starts into a pas de deux.

The piece shows the phases of the woman’s life; her relationship — represented by a series of short pas de deuxs — her wedding, eating around a dinner table, her funeral, and, finally, her departure into the universe, where she joins a circle of women.

Diamond said the piece is neo-classical, but leans more toward classical than contemporary.

“The music is very peaceful, but it has a lot of underlying passion and emotion — especially emotion,” he said. “It makes the movement more lush.”

Valse Triste

The piece Patricia McBride, former George Balanchine dancer and master teacher, staged for tonight’s performance, “Valse Triste,” holds a special place in her heart. “Valse Triste,” with music by Sibelius, was choreographed in 1985 for the New York City Ballet. McBride was the original lead dancer.

McBride said that, when she retired from dancing professionally, ballet master Peter Martins gave her the ballet as a gift.

“It was a wonderful gift that he gave me to be able to do this,” she said.

The ballet is about a woman who has lost her husband. She grieves and remembers their life together.

“Its a feeling about looking back and remembering the beautiful memories they had together,” she said.

McBride said the piece is classical, but when it was choreographed it was also a departure from classical.

“It was very different. It was very lyrical — it had a sense of drama in it,” she said.

The piece features a lot off balance movements and partnering, which McBride said takes a lot of control from the dancers. It is also a slower piece than the dancers are used to doing, which is why she is looking forward to doing it with live music.

“It’s a rather slow piece, but slow doesn’t mean that it’s easy,” she said. “It takes an artist to do a ballet like the ‘Valse Triste’ to make it come alive. There are so many details that you wouldn’t even think of that are there.”

McBride said she loves working with the dancers and passing on the ballets she has learned. But she also wants the dancers to make the movements their own as well.

“I don’t want them to be copies of myself,” she said. “I want them to find their own way into it.”

Four Seasons (Excerpts)

Ever since he began choreographing, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” has been in the back of Sasha Janes’ mind.

“Its one of those pieces I used to put on to fall asleep to, so I’ve always been familiar with it,” said Janes, associate director of the Charlotte Ballet.

Tonight’s performance will feature excerpts from “Four Seasons,” the dancers only performing two of the four seasons, autumn and summer.

The abstract piece is a mix between classical and contemporary ballet inspired by the seasons themselves. Janes wouldn’t give away too much, but he said the costumes will play a large role in the performance — especially in the autumn section.

The summer section has more of a contemporary feel, with more striking contrast in movement, Janes said.

The company will perform the ballet in its entirety in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the fall. For now, Janes has been using his time in Chautauqua as an opportunity to experiment while he has the symphony to work with.

“It’s still evolving,” he said.

Danse Brilliante

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s piece, “Danse Brilliante,” set to music by Édouard Lalo, combines the best of what Bonnefoux learned from his time dancing both with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet and at the Paris Opera Ballet.

Bonnefoux, artistic director of Chautauqua Dance, said the abstract ballet is all about the music.

“The orchestration is so interesting, it has so many colors,” Bonnefoux said. “I think it’s really strong and beautiful music for ballet.”

The piece is the most classical of the evening. It is split into sections that feature solos, duets, ensemble work, sections for only the men and sections for only the women.

“It’s the type of ballet that is classical but is a little more contemporary because there isn’t all the preparations before the steps, there is a nice flow between them,” Bonnefoux said.

Bonnefoux said working with the CSO is one of his favorite parts about being in Chautauqua.

“I see the best in our dancers when they come to Chautauqua and work with the symphony,” he said. “It’s a wonderful collaboration.”

But that collaboration occurs in as few as one rehearsal.

Cooper, the conductor, said he’s not worried, though. For one, he has been to Chautauqua numerous times under similar constraints. But he also said his previous life as a mathematician informs his success under pressure.

“Ideally, as a mathematician, your solutions have as few steps as possible and are as elegant as possible,” he said. “There’s never enough rehearsal time — it doesn’t matter if there’s one or a hundred. You can always use more. But has the time you have been used wisely, elegantly? In that regard, what I learned from studying mathematics is very relevant.”

Join the Chautauqua Dance Circle for a pre-performance lecture at 7 p.m. tonight at the Hall of Philosophy. Choreographers will discuss their pieces with the audience to foster insight and better understanding of tonight’s performance.