Carmina Burana. About a year ago I heard people talking about it. They used terms like controversial, shocking and risqué, and they said it was something the oft-conservative audiences in Utah frown upon. Intriguing.
I had researched Carmina Burana’s historical context and wondered how the 13th century poems detailing topics such as fortune, drinking and lust would be re-told in the form of dance. My interest was certainly piqued and I was ready to see what all the talk was about!
Ballet West opened its 2010-2011 season with George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Carmina Burana. The two ballets were an interesting pairing that worked very well. The Four Temperaments presented dancers portraying the four humors (basic substances in the body that were once said to make up our state of health), and Carmina Burana is meant to portray life’s Wheel of Fortune with celebration, love, desire, despair and fate. Each ballet touches upon the core of humanity, reaching directly into our soul.
When I attend the ballet, I try not to put too much thought into the storyline, unless I’m watching a single ballet where it’s essential to understanding the story. For example, I have seen Madame Butterfly, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Swan Lake and The Nutracker, and if I didn’t read or follow along with the program to understand the plot, it was very easy for me to get lost or confused. These are character-based ballets that encompass a much larger story. But with ballets like The Four Temperaments and Carmina Burana, knowing the story of each dance isn’t as necessary. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, it’s just that I’m not seeing a character, I’m experiencing the dance. With that in mind, I was happy to have the history of each ballet, but the stories the dancers told on stage were far more powerful than what I could ever read in print.
The Four Temperaments was comprised of eight dance segments, mostly as a pairing of two dancers. There was no set design and the dancers wore basic attire of black and white; black tights and a white t-shirt for men, and an opposing black leotard and white tights for the women. I love simplicity as much as I love ornamentation, but with minimalism my focus is squarely on the dancers.
In addition to the ensemble dancers, The Four Temperaments included pairs Emily Adams and Beau Pearson, Elizabeth Mcgrath and Christopher Anderson, Jacqueline Straughan and Rex Tilton, Katherine Lawrence and Christopher Sellars, and soloists Christopher Ruud, Aiden Deyoung, Tom Mattingly, Adrian Fry and Haley Henderson Smith. I loved Aiden Deyoung’s fluidity and Tom Mattingly’s lines, and I am always engaged by Christopher Sellar’s seemingly effortless connection to his partner as well as the audience.
Balanchine is absolutely brilliant. His dances are creative and inspiring, and while this may sound a bit obvious, Balanchine is all about form. You’re not watching a story of love or heartbreak – you’re stimulated by movement, how the dancers position their bodies and how they use the stage, and how the sometimes awkwardness and lack of smoothness is artistic and thought provoking.
The music of The Four Temperaments was by Paul Hindemith. For string orchestra and piano, the gem was the interplay between the dancers and the piano. Pianist Jared Oaks was outstanding and the Utah Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Terence Kern, performed beautifully.
Onto Carmina Burana! You know you’re about to experience something monumental when you see choir members filling into the balcony. I’ve never been to the ballet where a choir was included, so this was going to be something new. I’ll confess that by its name, I did not know Carl Orff’s music for Carmina Burana. But knowing its name was irrelevant. I knew the music, I just didn’t realize it. Everyone knows it. As a friend said to me after the performance, it’s one of the most ripped off pieces of music for movies ever!
The orchestra and choir opened with Oh Fortuna. Amazing and spine tingling! As the curtain rose, dancers entered the stage dressed as monks. With most dancers then shedding their cloaks and departing the scene, we were left with four dancers; Christiana Bennett and Easton Smith, and Annie Breneman and Michael Bearden. With their barely there, skin tone-colored costumes adorned with leaves, the pairs resembled Adam and Eve.
The dancers’ moves were fluid and graceful, and the choreography was creative, sensual and evocative. The partners danced as a single unit, their bodies melding and melting into each other.
All was well…until temptation. And with that we were then drawn into betrayal, jealousy, rage, rejection, heartbreak, solitude and, eventually, love.
As natural and as elegant as the costume were for the two pairs, some of costumes for the ensemble dancers seemed almost futuristic, yet had elements resembling ancient Egyptian design. The choreography for the ensemble dancers was interesting, with very precise movements and form. There was a lot of lifting and carrying women upon the shoulders of the male partners, and I loved how different it all was from anything I’d ever seen.
Neither The Four Temperaments nor Carmina Burana was about pretty tutus or elaborate sets. It was all about form. The ballets were, for me, about the dance as opposed to any particular story. The addition of the chorus and its soloists to Carmina Burana added drama and power to the ballet, and I couldn’t help but be completely drawn in. It was so powerful that I actually went back and saw it again. I loved it and connected even more with it the second time!
When I think about the prior comments I heard about Carmina Burana being risqué and shocking, I have to laugh. I half expected in-your-face passion, but the dances were all quite tame, respectful and elegant, and above all, inspiring!
Having now seen a variety of Ballet West productions, and looking ahead at the 2010-2011 season, it’s clear to me that Artistic Director Adam Sklute has every intention of making Ballet West one of the preeminent ballet companies in the nation. Sklute is not afraid to push the envelope with programming, and the Ballet West dancers are nothing short of stellar. From the top down, Ballet West is poised for success.
This weekend is Ballet West’s 2010 Gala Performance where patrons will be presented with short ballets highlighting the ‘strengths and talents’ of Ballet West. This year’s Gala program includes Balanchine’s Chaconne and Stars & Stripes, Défilé with Ballet West Academy, Mingling with Ballet West II Dancers and music by Enrique Granados, the world premiere of The Line, which includes dancers from the Berlin State Ballet School, Dracula, with music by Franz Liszt, and Sinfonietta, with music by Leoš Janácek.
The 2010-2011 Ballet West Season also includes The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Bolero and Innovations, and if you are wondering if attending the ballet is something you should do, stop wondering and go buy your tickets. You’ll love it!
Purchase tickets for the 2010 Ballet West Gala here.
Learn more about and purchase tickets to the 2010-2011 Ballet West Season at www.BalletWest.org.
Photos courtesy of Luke Isley.
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