Pacific Northwest Ballet opened Apollo & Carmina this Friday, April 13, 2012, with majestic splendor and vitality. These two widely celebrated ballets made for a balanced evening; the austere, neoclassical Apollo delves into the makings of an immortal while the bold Carmina Burana examines the plights and pleasures of the human condition. On opposite ends of the spectrum, Apollo encompasses dignified purity and restraint with its simple costumes, lighting, and music for only strings, while Carmina steeps the audience in the grandiose with an epic score, awe-inspiring sets, and over forty dancers onstage.
Artistic Director Peter Boal, an acclaimed interpreter of Apollo during his own performing career, passes on the tradition to PNB’s leading men with his staging of the ballet. George Balanchine, Apollo’s choreographer, made many edits to the work himself over the 50-year period from its first performance in 1928 to the final version in 1978, all in an effort to distill the piece into only its essential elements and to mirror the music composed by Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine removed the scene in which Apollo is born and learns to play the lute, as well as all of the set elements. Consequently, as Boal danced it, and as PNB presents it now, the stage is bare, lit with only an azure backdrop, and Apollo (performed nobly by Batkhurel Bold) appears fully formed. Bold dances his first solo with a brash naïveté indicative of the god’s youthfulness. Apollo’s Muses, danced by Maria Chapman, Lesley Rausch, and Sarah Ricard Orza, all defer to Bold with the right blend of reverence and supportiveness as they teach him their arts and help him rise to his godhead. Chapman’s usual clarity and élan shines as Calliope, the muse of poetry, and Rausch offers a surprising pertness to her portrayal of the theater and drama muse, Polyhymnia. Ricard Orza brings a wonderful generosity to her Terpischore, the muse of music and dance, as well as a fitting and impeccable musicality. The four dancers wind through the geometric intricacies of the choreography with equal ease and precision, giving each pose its due and nothing more. After having only one small taste of Balanchine thus far this season, Apollo is a refreshing reminder of the master’s choreographic genius. This ballet represents a turning point for Balanchine as the first crystallization of his now iconic neoclassical style. Everything is present here—narrative, emotion, exquisite technique—but all are etched with rarefied nuance.
Carmina Burana, has all these elements as well, but here they’re fleshed out to the fullest extent, a sumptuous feast of a ballet. Choreographed by Founding Artistic Director Kent Stowell, this awe-inspiring spectacle is performed under a giant gold wheel of Fortune (designed by Ming Cho Lee), which reminds us of the inescapability of the human condition. Randal G. Chiarelli’s magnificent lighting gives each scene a palpable texture, and Carl Orff’s swelling music is brilliantly sung by the Seattle Choral Company who stand elevated on a platform above the stage. Based on a collection of rather profane medieval songs and poems, Orff’s music has a primitive feeling to it that resonates with passion. In accordance, Stowell’s choreography depicts carousing peasants, sinners seeking redemption, nobility at an elegant celebration, and, throughout it all, a current of the inescapable urges that makes them all human—depicted with sinuous athleticism by dancers in glittering nude bodysuits. With up to forty bodies onstage at once, it often proves visually overwhelming, a whirling kaleidoscope of limbs and colors with only the music to anchor the chaos. The men’s corps, however, is notable for the clean lines and a dashing exuberance throughout, as is Benjamin Griffith for his expressive passion and buoyant leaps in “In Taberna.” Carrie Imler also delivers a firecracker of a performance in “In Taberna,” as the spicy gypsy woman in red. In “Cour D’Amour,” Rausch exemplifies nobility and grace, bringing a soothing calm to the stage after the frenzy of “In Taberna.” Lucien Postelwaite provides the perfect counterpoint to her calm refinement with his own dashing elegance. In a mesmerizing duet, they are both supple and soaring under twinkling stars. A ballet of epic proportions, Carmina’s strengths are largely in its spectacle, the combination of grandiose sets, booming orchestra, and magnificent voices. It is this combination that keeps the audience engaged throughout, making it a true crowd-pleaser.
Apollo & Carmina continues tonight through Sunday, April 22, at McCaw Hall. More information and tickets are available at www.pnb.org.