Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dance Review: Nasville Ballet's "Carmina Burana" is even better the second time around

Photo: Marianne Leach
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Although usually presented as a concert piece, Carl Orff's 1936 "Carmina Burana" was always intended to be theatrical, with some mimed action and "magic tableaux." The first performance in Frankfurt in 1937 was fully staged, in fact, with dancers, sets, and costumes.

Photo: Heather Thorne
Nashville Ballet's "Carmina Burana," originally presented at the Touhill back in 2013, made an encore appearance there this past weekend, once again under the aegis of Dance St. Louis. With 40 dancers, 120 singers, and 60 musicians, including The University of Missouri-St. Louis Orchestra and Singers, The Bach Society of Saint Louis, and The St. Louis Children's Choirs, it was, once again, a stunning work of dance theatre that succeeded both as Spectacle and as Art.

The first (and least sexually explicit) of Orff's "Trionfi" trilogy of choral theatre works, "Carmina Burana" derives its title from an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries that turned up in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Germany. As befits their "vulgar" status, the poems celebrate not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: spring, sex, food, sex, drink, gambling, and sex. They also recognize something that we moderns have lost track of, to our detriment: the heavy influence of blind chance on our lives. The setting of "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" ("Fortune, Empress of the World"), which opens and closes the work, reminds us that the wheel of fortune is always turning and that none of us should get too cocky, as the universe has a tendency to dope-slap the excessively smug.

Photo: Heather Thorne
Nashville Ballet Artistic Director and choreographer Paul Vasterling and visual designer Eric Harris emphasize that centrality of Lady Fortuna by making her a key character in the ballet. Fortuna begins and ends the evening surrounded by a massive, stage-filling "wheel of fortune" skirt that neatly establishes her dominance, but she also interacts with individual dancers to emphasize fate's capricious influence. Kayla Rowser was Fortuna in this revival, and she alternated beautifully between the faux-mechanical precision of the impersonal wheel and the seduction of Lady Luck.

This realization of "Carmina Burana" was, in fact, filled with striking images that beautifully complement the lyrics. Let me cite a few that will, I hope, give you a feel for the remarkable quality of what Mr. Vasterling, Mr. Harris, and the dancers accomplished.

Photo: Heather Thorne
For "In Taberna quando sumus" (labeled "The Drinking Song" here) the stage was filled with dancers in wine-red outfits reeling about in drunken but very precise abandon while the lyrics reeled off a list of the many types who come to the tavern to imbibe. The bird being roasted for dinner in "Olim lacus coleuram" (The Roasted Swan") was costumed all in white and danced entirely en pointe, as though trying to escape the flames. She was eventually surrounded in fiery red-on-white banners and carried off the stage by dancers in red. Katie Vasilopoulos danced the role this time with a sense of heart-rending distress.

The "Spring" section underscored the lyrical parallels between the awakening of the earth and the awakening of human desire with a succession of colorful and flirtatious dances. In "Floret silva nobilis" ("The Maypole"), for example, the dancers were costumed in spring-like pastels and, at one point, danced around a human Maypole. "Chramer, gib de varwe mir" ("More Joys of Spring") made the sex/spring parallel even more obvious with poses of adolescent sexual braggadocio and cheerful coupling.

Photo: Heather Thorne
I could go on, but you get the idea. The Nashville Ballet's "Carmina Burana" was a visual treat of the highest order.

Musically, "Carmina Burana" was noticeably more polished this time around than it was in 2013. Perhaps the best work came from the combined voices of the Bach Society and UMSL University Singers. Deployed on risers behind and to the sides of the dancers, they were powerful, to say the least. Elocution was quite impressive, given how widely separated the singers were, although I suspect audience members who were not familiar with the music might have benefited from projected text.

Soprano Stella Markou and tenor Tim Waurick repeated their roles from 2013. Ms. Markou had a bit of difficulty with that absurdly difficult coloratura moment in "Dulcissime" ("Sweetest One" in the program) but sounded great otherwise. And Mr. Waurick's roasting swan was, once again, one of the most dramatic I've heard. Baritone Adam Stefo turned in compelling performances of some very difficult music ("Dies, nox et omnia," with its rapid switch between falsetto and chest voice, is a real killer). His solo in "Ego sum abbas" ("The Bad Abbott") was a wonderful combination of skillful musicianship and theatricality, complete with drunken hiccups.

The St. Louis Children's Choir, deployed in box seats house right and left, were also most impressive, holding their own even through the tricky tempo changes towards the end of "Tempus est iocundum."

Photo: Heather Thorne
The UMSL University Orchestra, conducted by James Richards, sounded more robust and cohesive than they did back in 2013, a few minor brass intonation problems not withstanding. Orff's big brass and percussion sections had the proper impact, and more intimate moments like the "Round Dance" had just the right delicacy. Congratulations to them and Mr. Richards for a job well done.

The evening opened with "La Fontana," a new work choreographed by Dance St. Louis Artistic and Executive Director Michael Utoff to Bach's "Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor," BWV 1060, and performed by Saint Louis Ballet. As a choreographer, Mr. Utoff seems to have a remarkable affinity for Bach and an excellent eye for movement that creates visual analogs to the composer's musical structures. Four women costumed as classical Greek statues (ivory togas and coronets) suggested the fountain of the title, an image enhanced by their fluid movement. They were soon joined by three more colorfully costumed couples: the men in red-orange classical outfits and the women in flowing pastel gowns and long gloves. As the work progressed, the two groups began to interact, until, at the end, the couples became the fountain and the four women struck statuesque poses on the outside.

The movement enhanced and complemented Bach's music, in short, without trying to impose a story thread on it. It was a nice contrasting choice to the more literally narrative choreography of "Carmina Burana," just as Bach's chamber music was a well-chosen contrast to Orff's far more massive work.

Oboist Ann Homan and violinist Julia Sakharova were flawless in the solo roles, intertwining beautifully in Bach's elaborate counterpoint.

Dance St. Louis's Bach/Orff double bill will be over by the time you read this, of course, but I still want to congratulate them on bringing this crowd pleaser back for another appearance. Fully staged productions of "Carmina Burana" are rare, so the chance to see one of this quality was most welcome. The Dance St. Louis season continues with MOMIX in "Alchemia" at the Touhill January 29 and

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