Last week, Nashville Ballet brought their production of ‘Carmina Burana’ to the Touhill Performing Arts Center courtesy of Dance St Louis. The famous Carl Orff score was brought to life with live music from the UMSL University Orchestra, UMSL University Singers, the Bach Society of Saint Louis, and The Saint Louis Children’s Choirs. The excitement of live classical music and dance made for an enriching experience whether the audience consist of art aficionados to a crowd of novices.
The sunday afternoon show was sold-out and the pre-show people-watching proved great entertainment in itself; a rather rude uppity lady dressed to the nines stepped on my feet as she made her way to her seat and a man clad in a Blues Hockey jersey sat perusing the program behind me.The subject matter is a weighty and respectable start for any non-puff piece of entertainment. Carmina Burana is a collection of poems written in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries that challenges conventional values and religious leadership of the time. Anytime the phrase, ‘examine the cycle of life and question the source of life’s pain’s’ is used, it will likely garner a nod of snooty approval. Set to the iconic instrumentation, the work has all of the elements to please the serious art-goer and possibly intimidate those with less exposure to things like opera and ballet.
Let’s be honest, I’ve had the privilege of seeing and hearing plenty of good quality art, serious art, my entire life. When visiting New York City during spring break of my senior year in college, the frist thing that I did after getting off the plane was going to the Met to watch a five-hour opera (and admittedly then partially slept through it).Men in tights, over-the-top dramatic expression, and the woes of love conveyed through both foreign language and song are just another Tuesday to me. I have the sneaking suspicion that a lot of people might think historical religious poems plus classical dance plus classical music immediately equals either quality art or -for those less experienced in the classical realm- a stodgy, boring time.This production, in moments, managed to disprove both sides of the equation.
First off, the music was just stunning. It matters not that it was written in 1937, the score is wonderfully percussive, powerful, and majestic and it was performed superbly. Stella Markou as the soprano soloist was especially enthralling. It was so amazing to see and hear such a clear sound coming from a human body that at times I found myself watching her simply standing in the corner rather than the dancers. Both the singers and musicians delivered the intensity and skill required by the score to make it exciting and impressive to any ear.
Nashville Ballet is populated with some of the most talented dancers in the country. From the stars to the newest in the second company, the technical merit of these artists is unquestionable. This was noticable in the corps of women as they were partnered in an adagio section and a sea of beautiful turned-out legs held a high developpe devant for an uncomfortable amount of time. Throughout the show, I don’t believe I saw a single failed pirouette from any man, and the landings from tours were flawless. The choreography was challenging and seemed pretty relentless and at no time did the dancers appear tired. Their technique and stamina was very impressive. Sadie Bo Harris, as Lady Fortuna, stole the show. While her dancing, especially displays of extension, was mesmerizing, she could command attention while doing nothing but bouree. My only qualms with the dancers were in Brendon LaPier as the Sun and Krissy Johnson as Flora. LaPier looked afraid and therefore more like a technically good but insecure student. There was a great deal of stiffness held in his neck and shoulders. Johnson seemd too peppy in her role of Flora. SHe lacked a certain delicacy and there was something of a cheerleader energy about her. Her shoes were also too loud, she didn’t put her heel down at all in a series of step-over, lame-duck, (they go by various names) turns, and I saw her royally mess up a renverse which I only mention because it is my favorite of all the ballet vocabulary. These are things I’m sure most people wouldn’t notice and for the most part, the dancers were exceptional in performance and technical skill.
Between the concept and execution, the creative part lies in the choreography from Artistic Director Paul Vasterling. It was indeed, creative, filled with inventive use of prop, space, and steps and did well to serve the range of character. The opening and closing with the circle fo dancers surrounding Lady Fortuna were especially stunning, as was the gorgeous final pas de deux. There were just a few moments mostly in the tavern scene where the steps came across as overly flamboyant. I know that they were supposed to be joyous and drunk and a little ridiculous but the part where a big group of men were skipping about waving their arms overhead was just uncomfortable. It is moments like this when I feel that I need to defend ballet from the stereotypes of being ‘for sissies’ and swear that it isn’t all like this. There is a difference in developing a jovial scene and just making people look stupid and my only problem with the show was that moments of the choreography did the latter for these wonderful dancers. Though I will say that some of the men looked like they were wearing more makeup than your average circus clown. Someone needs to tell one male from the corps that he doesn’t need to darken his eyebrows so much. Watching this one in particular in the aforementioned bit of choreography it’s no wonder why a lot of people make the assumptions that are made about ballet and ballet dancers. I can only imagine what ‘hockey jersey wearing’ guy was thinking, but maybe now I’m the one casting a stereotype.
Art is not only as good as the subject matter or the artists’ execution. Every step of the creation from concept to craft to final small details must do justice to both history and current climate to be successful. For the most part, Nashville Ballet’s Carmina Burana did just that.