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Ballet West’s Fall Icons: Carmina Burana and Serenade

Artists of Ballet West in Nicolo Fonte’s Carmina Burana. Photo by Luke Isley.

Ballet West’s fall offering is loaded with icons. The world premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s Carmina Burana, a co-production with the Cincinnati Ballet, draws inspiration from Carl Orff’s well-known score that set the poetry of medieval clergy to music. The opening song, “O Fortuna,” is shorthand for drama, as frequently heard in commercials as it is in theaters. Serenade, the other ballet of the double-bill, is the first work choreographed by George Balanchine in the United States and a masterwork of 20th-century ballet. Its opening tableau of female dancers in sky blue, ankle-length tutus extending their hands as if shielding their eyes from the sun is central to the origins of American ballet. For the opening performance, Ballet West danced both works with spirit and indulgence, the expert clarity of Serenade contrasting with Carmina Burana’s excessive flourish.

The familiar refrain of “O Fortuna” bellowed as cloisters housing the Cantorum Chamber Choir in an actual choir loft were unveiled. A bone-like light fixture recalling the raftered ceiling of a Catholic church floats over a writhing tangle of bodies. Wearing nude leotards and briefs, the dancers twist until broken shapes emerge. Featuring a full orchestra, full chorus, three vocal soloists, impressive scenery, pointe shoes as well as soft shoes, too many costume changes, and intricate choreography, Nicolo Fonte’s Carmina Burana is a true spectacle.

The poems Orff chose to include in his cantata examine themes of fortune, love, and lust. Like many versions of Carmina Burana, Fonte uses the sensual words as a muse and aesthetic choices reference the authors of the lyrics, though the costumes have a trendier bent with metallic leotards and hooded crop tops paired with bronze circle skirts that recall monks’ robes. With the men and women of the ensemble clothed in the same hooded costume, the emergence of the monks is a magnificently anonymous moment.

The ensuing vignettes are visually impactful and only occasionally overwrought. The dancers clearly delight in the movement, giving a heightened energy to Fonte’s choreography. Demonstratively musical, the choreography charged the stage with tension and hinted at the idea of humanity’s dual nature. Even in calm moments, Fonte can skillfully craft drama. This intensity can get exhausting, but Arolyn Williams had a refreshingly joyous solo that interrupted the turmoil.

Though Carmina Burana’s movement was rigorously detailed and sinuously danced, I craved a through-line. There were hints of this in an elegantly ambiguous duet between Alexander MacFarlan and Oliver Oguma that lightly referenced an earlier embrace. The arc of Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell’s roles also felt like a potential theme.

At first dancing separately, O’Connell appeared in a solo that showcased his spaciously sophisticated movement and Sisk emerged as a broken bird with only one wing and one pointe shoe. Though I did not understand why she was only wearing one shoe, Sisk expertly navigated the challenge, embodying a character trapped by her halved nature.  The pair’s eventual union in a climactic pas de deux was the highlight of the ballet. Much of the partnering in the rest of Carmina Burana felt manipulative but O’Connell met Sisk as a peer, supporting rather than controlling her. They danced with abandon and trust. O’Connell’s elegance and seamless partnering skills perfectly matched Sisk’s technical consistency and emotional intensity.

Principal Artists Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell in Nicolo Fonte’s Carmina Burana. Photo by Luke Isley.

Unlike the embellishment of Fonte’s Carmina Burana, Serenade was brilliant in its refined clarity. As the emotive chords of Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C Major” swelled, the corps de ballet extend their fingertips, floating their wrists down to rest on their foreheads, then their hearts, their arms finally arriving in low circles and feet opening to first position below the hems of their tutus. These first gestures of Serenade, choreographed in 1934, are emblematic of Balanchine and of American ballet. Despite being over 80 years old, Serenade feels vital.

Serenade exemplifies the idealized feminine qualities of Balanchine’s ballets, only turning problematic when one of the soloist men “awakens” the collapsed Waltz Girl. The distilled movement and calming yet innovative arrangement of the dancers is an ode to the foundations of the art form: the corps de ballet, the ritual of class, and the crystalline technique it fosters. Most of the ballet’s striking moments are simple and based in class exercises. The stage erupts in unified repetitions of pirouettes. Staccato port des bras illustrate the interplay between the orchestra’s instruments. Dozens of dancers extend their legs into tendus that perfectly slide into fifth positions, a movement that signifies the start of an exercise.

In Ballet West’s production of this classic, the corps de ballet artfully and effortlessly lays the ballet’s technical foundation without feeling cold or removed. I have admired the unity of Ballet West’s corps before, but I have never seen them as easily connected as they were on opening night. The balance between their singular openness and the meticulous choreography is enthralling. If I had the words to laud each individual corps member, I would.

At its heart Serenade is an ensemble work, but an abstract relationship between five soloists, three women and two men, underpins the ballet. Weaving amongst the corps de ballet in the first movement, joyfully expansive leaps and pizzicato steps introduce the three female soloists. Katherine Lawrence’s calm warmth permeated her sparkling technique and Emily Adams brimmed with vitality and confidence. Adams was superb, playing with the music and enticing the audience with her fully enlivened physicality. The role of Waltz Girl magnified Beckanne Sisk’s unique and growing ability to convey emotional depth. Her performance was lush, exhilarating, and sincere in its gravity. While the ballet is renowned for being story-less, Sisk imbued Serenade with an emotional resonance often found only in narrative. She stretched her arms backward and opened her chest to the heavens as the masthead of Serenade’s iconic final lift and I saw all the complexity of ballet, the torment, joy, sacrifice, and transcendence, embodied in her arch.

Ballet West’s Carmina Burana with Serenade runs now through Saturday, Nov. 11.

This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org.

Further explore Ballet West’s Carmina Burana with RadioWest Film’s “That One Moment”

Mary Lyn Graves, a native of Tulsa, OK, studied dance at the University of Oklahoma. She currently dances with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in Salt Lake City.

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