Review: ‘An Evening of Pas de Deux’ offers evidence of promising future for Charlotte Ballet

Guest Review by: Jane Vranish

It may seem odd, but Chautauqua audience members got a sneak peak of Charlotte Ballet’s future during “An Evening of Pas de Deux” at the Amphitheater on Wednesday night. Yes, two at a time taking to the stage, not ensemble ballets.

Charlotte Ballet is currently in transition, something that happens to mid-sized companies every so often. The bad news is that six dancers are leaving the company, four of whom were principal/soloist rank. The Chautauquan Daily noted that Jamestown native Jordan Leeper, who is headed for Atlanta Ballet, recently made his final bow here. Melissa Anduiza will next perform with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, where Charlotte Ballet resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden is co-artistic director.

But the real shock came when both Anna Gerberich and Pete Leo Walker, acknowledged stars in works like The Romeo & Juliet Project, both decided to stretch their muscles in a new way.

After pondering three offers, Gerberich settled on The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, one of America’s top companies. Walker chose Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, notably adventurous and a darling of critics around the country.

That has produced a domino effect within the company, and time will tell how the chips fall. But there was good news and evidence of promising things to come.

The good news involved two women who performed in “Pas de Deux” and will likely be key in re-forming the backbone of the company. It was good to see Alessandra Ball-James, who was the reigning ballerina before she left in 2012 and who rejoined the company during the past season in Charlotte, back in such fine form. Cast in the finale, the always-winning “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” she maintained a breezy ease despite the trademark speed of George Balanchine’s footwork.

It also has one of the most breathtaking moments in all of ballet — no matter how many times you see it. At the end, the two dancers dart to the side, where the man (Josh Hall) jumps into the air behind the woman and before he can even land, the ballerina flings herself into a blind dive. Somehow, he is there to catch her.

Then they do it again to the other side.

Hall has transformed himself this season, looking leaner and cleaner in his technique and, along with that, a real presence on stage. And if there was ever a reincarnation of 2015 Kennedy Center Honors winner Patricia McBride, Ball-James was it, flashing a brilliant smile as her arms stroked a dozen harps in the air.

Moving from scintillating to stark, Ball-James tapped her dark side in Mark Diamond’s “Widow,” set to music somewhat akin to a horror film, but actually by serial composers Milton Babbitt and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

She stalked the stage, both Maleficent and Spider-Woman, stabbing the air and floor with insectile pricks, although Diamond’s intent was an alien who momentarily transforms herself into a woman (via a red overlay) and back again. Ben Ingel was a surprisingly perfect victim, using his fluid muscularity to provide contrast. But there was no doubt who would triumph.

In her seven years with Charlotte Ballet, Sarah Hayes Harkins has always had a “can-do” attitude and here sat astride two of what are called “war horses” in ballet for their popularity and subsequent familiarity.

“Le Corsaire,” the tale of a pirate and a slave girl, is regularly performed at ballet competitions all over the world. “Flames of Paris,” the ballet version of Les Misérables, with plenty of its own flag-waving, has been given new life by Alexei Ratmansky, former head of the Bolshoi Ballet and now resident choreographer at American Ballet Theatre.

He made quite a reputation at the Bolshoi in refurbishing their full-length classics, upgrading both staging and steps for modern audiences (and dancers). It has been filmed for the “Ballet in Cinema” series with international stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev.

Both works took full advantage of Hayes Harkins’ spirited talents. Blessed with a real turning facility, she seems almost eager to execute the most difficult combinations, all with a winning smile.

Her diagonal double turns, each followed by a grand jeté were spot on, as was a series of pirouettes from fifth to fifth. Alas, her fouettes let her down Wednesday night — virtually the same combination that Osipova does with multiple turns and a saute thrown in for good measure.

She was paired with Gregory Taylor in “Flames,” a handsome, princely presence with breathtaking split leaps. In “Corsaire,” new company member Ryo Suzuki — probably weaned on duets like this in competition-heavy Japan ­— used the floor as springboard with a wonderful vertical jump.

But McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux have a stellar reputation for nurturing and supporting young dancers as well. And there is no doubt that it will be an exciting season ahead for the company in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Chelsea Dumas was featured in a trio of works and is the budding actress among the women. Despite only finishing up her second season, her young “Queen” in Sasha Janes’ piece was regal, petulant and out of touch with the people around her. Literally an intense tug-of-war with soldier David Morse, who cannot continue to fight, she looked as if born to the throne.

She became a widow in Peter Martins’ “Valse Triste,” a woman weighed down by her husband’s death, and in a longing dance with a life full of painful memories. Originally choreographed for McBride, it took advantage of her lyricism, plus those parallel bourrées en pointe and the turned-in spirals that were such a distinct part of her vocabulary. That being said, Dumas was poignant in her own way with a compelling Hall (also featured in three pieces — another sign?).

In addition, the pair opened the program, an excerpt from Dwight Rhoden’s “Spun to the Sky.” With funky black-and-white print costumes, they slithered and wiggled through the steps. But this was a “whet-your-whistle” duet, hardly a fully formed standalone piece designed to open the program. So it just faded away.

Diamond’s “Contrast” was another excerpt, but so much more successful. Set to guitar music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, it became a magnetic mood piece. With Elizabeth Truell so very willing, newcomer Tendo Santos manipulated her with his hands and mesmerized her with his sensual looks.

He showed a clean technique, too, in Carmina Burana last weekend, which could mean that, along with Suzuki and the development of the younger male ensemble, Charlotte Ballet might be headed in a new direction. Stay tuned.

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.