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Passion and pleasure at the Carolina Ballet

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Last weekend, as the Carolina Ballet danced Vivaldi's Four Seasons, one in particular was on everybody's mind.

Because of the wintry weather, the company had canceled its dress rehearsal and its opening night, though it hardly showed in the adequately polished work they put onstage.

If the audience seemed exceptionally happy to be there, liberally applauding solos and duets, it must have been partly because they were relieved to be anywhere except stranded at home. But the performances were ovation-worthy in their own right, especially after the interval, when Carolina Ballet director Robert Weiss' passionate choreography for Vivaldi's late-baroque mainstay brought some sorely needed heat to Fletcher Opera Theater.

The evening got off to a somewhat slow and formal start with the first half of the program. Unlike The Four Seasons, there are no major ballets based on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, and Zalman Raffael filled in this blank slate very carefully and conservatively. In his program notes, the choreographer described his effort as "an abstract look at finding peace in one's life by finding love for one's self," and its concept felt as vague as that sounds.

Focused on stately duets and rising to a lightly triumphant pinnacle, it was a tender work of pleasing prettiness, if not enormous substance. The most memorable thing about it was the dancing of Jan Burkhard, whose precision had the touch of wild grace that divides transcendent ballet from the merely decorative.

To be fair, the difference in immediacy between this work and the evening's second half may have as much to do with the music as the choreographers. While Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 is subtle and moody, Vivaldi's deeply familiar The Four Seasons bursts forth with shocking vividness, teeming with undeniable life force. It grabs you by the lapels and shouts, "Look! Grass growing, buds opening, streams leaping, ice cracking, leaves and snowflakes twirling!" Its thrumming, interlocked motion makes a powerful engine for dance, and its structure—four concertos that each bookend a slow movement with two fast ones—creates an irresistible overarching momentum.

Vivaldi avoided any obvious birth-to-death arc, locating the abundant life in every season, from natural processes to human rituals. Weiss answers this sensual intensity with visceral movement that is still clearly grounded in classical ballet. He mentioned during his pre-curtain speech that much care had been taken with the changing of the colors from season to season, and it paid off in a rich sensory experience.

"Spring" felt fresh and bursting, from the dancing to the green lighting and costumes. That playfulness gave way to torrid heat in "Summer," cast in flaming red and orange and gold, where a sultry yet regal solo by Eugene C. Barnes III earned the evening's heartiest cheers. A lavender twilight ushered us into a "Fall" in rose and russet, which contrasted the fire of summer with a courtly style. And the frosty blues of "Winter" framed a striking scene where male dancers leapt and swirled like snowflakes among female ones who were as poised as ice sculptures.

The males' winter costumes, combined with their kinetic choreography, did make them look a tad bit Ice Capades, but otherwise, the scene setting was pitch-perfect. In the context of that snowy night, the appeal of summer was a no-brainer, but even winter felt energizing as Weiss matched the undimmed joyfulness of Vivaldi's music with a strong measure of his own.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Escape from winter."

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