Carolina Ballet opened its 16th season last weekend with a program featuring the most influential ballet choreographer of the 20th century, George Balanchine. Born in imperial Russia in 1904, Balanchine came to America in the 1930s, founded the still pre-eminent New York City Ballet in the 1940s and choreographed scores of ballets before his death in 1983.
Balanchine illuminated and edited ballet's past and built its future, blending the classical with jazzy, angular moves and the American recklessness he loved. And he trained a whole generation of dancers, choreographers and company directors, many of whom are still at work today—including Carolina Ballet's director, Robert Weiss. If you want a comparable figure in another art, think Leonard Bernstein, but bigger; or Picasso, if he kept a workshop; or—oh, never mind. No one compares.
But how does an all-Balanchine evening play now? That depends on what dances are on the program. Weiss begins with the Raymonda Variations, a neoclassical bonbon of pretty corps de ballet patterns and sprightly solos that aims to please. The breathless little divertissements, full of devilish moves like hops on pointe, leave the dancers little room for anything but smiling execution (which Carolina Ballet delivers). It's all very square and true, like the ballet of my childhood, trapped under glass.
After an intermission, Weiss moves on to three novelties: The Steadfast Tin Soldier, a pas de deux based on a dreadful Hans Christian Andersen story of doomed love among toys; Rondo alla Zingarese, a gypsy fling; and À la Françaix, a joke ballet with a sylph, a soubrette, a tennis pro and some sailors. Of the three, only the Rondo, with its sultry hip-slung vigor, looks remotely contemporary. But the costumes give one pause: peacock scrap skirts bound with little corsets for the women, and laced shirts, panne velvet Cossack trousers and boots for the men. Are we really still up for romanticizing the Romany this way?
Finally, we arrive at Rubies. Here is what we mean when we talk about Balanchine: the jazzy, smart, brave new ballet, set to bold and jagged Stravinsky. Rubies is a prism that refracts the classical in clever inversions. A princess slouches on stage like a rebellious teen; the corps crackle their smooth ports de bras into shapes like the prongs of a ring. The women toss technique in go-for-broke extensions, Karinska's still-startling jeweled gladiator skirts rattling around their thighs, and a low second-position plie—a squat, really—cuts through a pretty phrase.
But even here the past persists. Rubies, like Raymonda, features a royal couple and their symmetrical court, plus a spare princess; the couple can be inconsequentially cute, like those of The Steadfast Tin Soldier or À la Françaix, and the princess' jazz rebellion stays in bounds. Whether you see a bold reinvention springing free from a classical armature or a weary warhorse with up-to-date trappings depends very much on what you've been primed to see—and in this program, I'm afraid, it's mostly the latter.
What Balanchine needs is someone to do for him what he did for his great forebear Petipa: clear out the dross and polish up the jewels. But the Balanchine Trust, which licenses his choreography, likely would not allow that, and at any rate, Weiss does not seem inclined to take the job.
What about the dancing? The Carolina Ballet corps is almost terrifyingly well-rehearsed. Soloists zing through their roles. Jan Burkhard could not be more pert and exact; Richard Krusch spins like a top. Margaret Severin-Hansen gets down all the details of her starring role in Rubies without seeming to prefer any of them. Lara O'Brien caught my eye: With her reckless brilliance, she punches a hole in the smooth Carolina Ballet surface. It's a little hole, though, and that puzzles me. Leggy, lithe, majestically cool, O'Brien should make a splash. Maybe she, like Balanchine, needs resetting.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Polishing the jewels."