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New Direction Charlotte Ballet Delights in Chautauqua Season Opener

by Steve Sucato
July 9, 2018
The Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater
One Ames Avenue
Chautauqua, NY 14722
(716) 357-6250
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.
For the first program in Charlotte Ballet’s annual summer residency at the Chautauqua Institution under new artistic director Hope Muir, the Canadian-born, European trained, former dancer with Rambert Dance Company and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, gave audiences a taste of the new direction she is taking the company in.  One focusing more on contemporary works from a global perspective. Unlike past summer residencies dominated by hastily created — albeit often marvelous — new works by Chautauqua mainstays, Charlotte Ballet  resident choreographer Sasha Janes and Charlotte Ballet II director Mark Diamond, the company will now be bringing much more of the world-class repertory presented during their home season in Charlotte.

For their Wednesday, June 27 International Series program, the Amphitheater audience got a taste of that new approach with three stylistically diverse works including a reprise from last summer of the Ohad Naharin masterwork “Minus 16”.

The stylistically diverse program began with the dancer duo of Elizabeth Truell and Drew Grant in former Ballet Frankfurt dancer Helen Pickett’s “Tsukiyo” (Moonlit Night). Premiered in 2009 and set to Arvo Pärt's often used sonata for piano and violin “Spiegel im Spiegel,” the duet was Pickett’s third commission for Boston Ballet and a piece indicative of Muir’s embracing of the works of in-demand contemporary choreographers.

As if spying the awakening of some ethereal, bird-like and extremely fragile creature to the world around them, Pickett packed into her twisty, sharp-edged movement for the duet, a range of expression and emotion Truell reveled in. A breakout performance for her, she was masterful in her ability to convey, love, fear, desire, trepidation with a vulnerability that captured hearts including that of dance partner Grant whose character wonderfully fed off Truell’s character’s emotional outpourings.  Viewed as a fleeting encounter of discovery in Truell’s character’s almost blink-of-an-eye-existence, Pickett’s duet was a heartbreaking and poignant reminder of our own emotion-filled, all-too-brief existences.

Next, Ballett Zürich principal dancer turned choreographer, Filipe Portugal’s debut North American ballet “Stepping Over” (2018) took the stage.  Set to a minimalist score by Philip Glass, Portugal’s ballet featured the full complement of Charlotte Ballet’s dancers in a ballet with a decidedly 1990s European contemporary ballet feel to its delivery a la the works by William Forsythe and Ji?™í Kylián.

In it, emotionally detached-looking dancers casually strode onto the stage in lines or in male/female pairs and then lit into carefully-crafted, technique-heavy contemporary ballet movement phrases. The couples' women rocketed legs skyward in off-kilter twisting and turning movement steered by their male partners. While Portugal is a promising choreographic talent, it is clear he has yet to find his own voice. Apart from a few creative dancer formations and tableaus, “Stepping Over,” was less about him stepping over into new choreographic realms than him stepping over the same ground covered by choreographers he most likely had experience with as a dancer. Despite Portugal's ballet not having much new to offer, it was an eye-catching display of bodies in space made even more captivating by Charlotte Ballet’s technically proficient and uber fit bodies, most notably dancers Alessandra Ball James and Peter Mazurowski.

It may be sacrilege to say, but Naharin’s nearly two-decade old “Minus 16” is beginning to shows signs of being dated. The legendary Batsheva Dance Company artistic director/choreographer's most famous dance work, and the only one his works regularly performed by seemingly every ballet company in the world, is still widely entertaining with its mix of theatricality, humor and audience engagement but Naharin’s dance choreography in parts smacks of the era it was created in.

Audiences, as did those in attendance June 27, still get a kick out of a lone dancer unassumingly wandering out onto the stage to perform a preamble solo while the house lights are up and fellow audience members are talking and milling about. One by one audience members discover the dancer and are drawn into the quirky, fitful intermission-length solo this time performed by dancer James Kopecky who elicited plenty of audience reactions especially during some risqué moments in his solo.

While there are several memorable moments in "Minus 16," the most impactful and stirring has to be the beginning group section when 16 dancers of both genders (sometimes more, sometimes less) costumed in black men’s 3-piece suits and wide-brimmed black hats, begin filtering onto the stage and placing chairs in half-circle around the perimeter of the stage to surf music king Dick Dale’s 1963 guitar classic "Misirlou" made famous in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. Once seated and bent over with elbows on their knees, Israeli rock band Tractor’s Revenge's updated version of the traditional Israeli song “Echad Mi Yodea” sent the assembled  group of dancers into perhaps the most famous “crowd wave” in dance history as they rapidly  rose one after the other from their seats thrusting their bodies backwards as if being shot and in the process tossing off their hats. The dancer wave ended with the last of them instead falling forward flat to the floor.  This spirited sequence repeats several times with the dancers in-between waves, chant-shouting lyrics to the song, then frantically stripping off a layer of clothing and hurling it into a pile center stage — all that is except the last dancer Juwan Alston who remains fully dressed. This goes on until all are in their tighty whities. Being an outdoor venue, the impact of scene and the volume of the dancers’ chanting could have been further heightened by miking the stage. Nonetheless, Charlotte Ballet’s dancers acquitted themselves nicely in piece especially in the popular closing audience participation section.

Once again the house lights came up and the cast left the stage to carefully select unsuspecting audience members and pull them up onstage to dance with, and be danced at, by them. The mix of dance professionals and novices and the minimal direction given to the latter by the former made for some humorous klutzy moments and a whole lot of fun.

On the whole Charlotte Ballet’s International Series proved a fabulous introduction for  Chautauqua patrons to the new look company and a solid program in line with the quality productions curated over the years by former Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux that also featured ballets from the company’s Charlotte repertory.
Charlotte Ballet dancers Alessandra Ball James, left, and Drew Grant perform in Filipe Portugal’s 'Stepping Over'.

Charlotte Ballet dancers Alessandra Ball James, left, and Drew Grant perform in Filipe Portugal’s "Stepping Over".

Photo © & courtesy of HALDEN KIRSCH/THE CHAUTAUQUAN DAILY


Charlotte Ballet's Juwan Alston, rear, and Sarah Lapointe perform in Filipe Portugal’s 'Stepping Over'.

Charlotte Ballet's Juwan Alston, rear, and Sarah Lapointe perform in Filipe Portugal’s "Stepping Over".

Photo © & courtesy of HALDEN KIRSCH/THE CHAUTAUQUAN DAILY


Charlotte Ballet dancers in Ohad Naharin's 'Minus 16'.

Charlotte Ballet dancers in Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16".

Photo © & courtesy of HALDEN KIRSCH/THE CHAUTAUQUAN DAILY

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