Sarah Hayes Harkins’ long line, fully down from her pointedly leading index finger, called a nearly full Amphitheater audience to their feet to welcome the Charlotte Ballet home happily to Chautauqua on a humid night Tuesday, après le deluge. It was a day for torrents and big rain, so it was testimony to the resident company that so many ventured out, the weather still threatening.
And they were rewarded.
Harkins is a remarkable dancer, each moment a full-body focus. By measure, even her eyes are on — especially when she is out of the light, acknowledging those in her context, notably seeing the orchestra before her, piercing even into a distant row in the large hall — and the turn of her wrist leads the turn of her torso — that is the beauty of her carriage, each element leading to the phenomena of her discipline and her achievement. Hers, then, is a singular art, a stand-out to behold, as in a crowd-pleasing fouetté, an extended spin on one foot en pointe across the stage. For her, it seems as if it was just walk-in-the-park natural, making as if every day what for the rest of us is beyond comprehension.
Such were the feature moments in Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s “Danse Brillantes,” which closed the night of dance. It was choreographed to the most vivacious passages of Édouard Lalo’s “Namouna,” a short-lived ballet for Lucien Petipa. Bonnefoux used it as a sure-fire showcase for the company, displaying its diverse capacity, from solo stage to a crowd of 11. And not to miss the point, “Brillantes” included two talented summer apprentices, Sarah Pierce and Candace Ricketts, all to live music with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, in as fine a form as the dripping air allowed.
Chelsea Dumas is another company singularity. She also moved with Harkins in the highlights for the evening, even playing dead during the Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the evening opener, choreography by Mark Diamond, aptly enough called “Adagio.”
Diamond’s imagination is such fertile ground. Against the softness of the music, he began by bringing out the entire corps of apprentice and summer festival ballerinas en pointe and into a swirling circle, as if a force of life. They sounded like a growing presence of hooves; with each new dancer entering the stage, the level amplified, and there’s rue humor to this, with each dancer in diaphanous powder blue entering with their backs to the audience. Yet with such an indulgence for symmetry, Diamond turns matters straight after a bit, resting a heavy bit of psychodrama on the frame of structure.
The apprentices in coupled roles were Caroline Atwell and Rafael Valdez, Lily Overmeyer and Noah Herron, and Juliet Prine and Benjamin Youngstone. The women at the entry were apprentices Bianca Allanic, Caral Hansvick, Sarah Pierce and Candace Ricketts, with festival dancers Leah Chen, Amelia Dencker, Ashley Griffin, Ava Moses, Laura Schultz and Camila Vicioso.
Diamond is brilliant at flourishes of high style with contemporary manners, as when a pas de deux emerges from between the legs of another couple. Gratefully, Dumas with her partner, company veteran Josh Hall, show the solid, anchoring presence they bring to the stage as a series of five couples perform the vanity of a life cycle, from birth to love and even eating before death and the hereafter. The drama calls back another time, particularly when it comes time to die, seeming like the heavy weight of dance from early in the 20th century, like Ted Shawn, strong angles and heartfelt funereal angst.
Associate Artistic Director Sasha Janes choreographed to summer and fall from Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a more direct transition than the “Adagio’s” complex lifeline. Janes begins with detail, a touch between dancers, as if a christening on the wind, which in time becomes full blown and saucy, full of life and élan, where just three dancers soon become 10, multiplying in the summer.
They make the hard turn to fall through an ecology of hand signs suggesting the a peeling back, an opening up, for a new way, a new season. Harkins as summer is carried limply aloft, giving way to a cabinet of ballerinas in multicolored dervish skirts that are shed to become freestanding props in the sightlines of winter.
And there was more to come. After the intermission, the company brought forth a historic marker for the evening. “Valse Triste,” by Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer, created this short waltz as incidental music for his brother-in-law’s play about Death. This Sad Waltz to Death inspired Peter Martins, long a leader of the New York City Ballet, to choreograph a piece for Patricia McBride, then prima ballerina for NYCB, and now associate artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet.
The dance of death is between a dying woman and life itself, portrayed by Josh Hall, wearing his elegant whites. It is a dance that demands intense control, as it slowly unwinds into a commanding drama. Hall and Chelsea Dumas in counterpoint black perform the waltz as a struggle of wills between the piety of death and the passion of life. Death will out, of course, but it was a fine dance to get there.
Dumas and Hall attend one emotional value at a time, no recklessness; rather, small steps toward the peaks of life, and then the valleys, as the ever presence of Death emerges again, until the last kiss. There is no amplified moment, not until the last, and the beauty Dumas and Hall bring to the pies is in the last moment, an enduring image in a profoundly moving, masterfully crafted work.
McBride receives no credit in program listings for the waltz, but how could she not be involved? Likely she found the core of the work already — within in these two fine dancers.
Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. He was the dance and theater critic for The Buffalo News and thereafter the director of George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester.