Local Arts

Hope Muir’s Charlotte Ballet takes new chances – and they pay off

Juwan Alston with Lexi Johnston, Shaina Wire and Alessandra Ball James in Charlotte Ballet’s performance of Javier de Frutos’ “Elsa Canasta.”
Juwan Alston with Lexi Johnston, Shaina Wire and Alessandra Ball James in Charlotte Ballet’s performance of Javier de Frutos’ “Elsa Canasta.”

Hope Muir serves notice in Fall Works that her regime as Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director should keep audiences happily off balance.

She begins daringly, with a long moment of silence in Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad.” She ends with a frieze of romantic irony on a staircase to nowhere in Javier de Frutos’ “Elsa Canasta.” Both pieces were choreographed within the last 15 years; both are company premieres.

In between comes “Apollo,” a serene George Balanchine classic staged by associate artistic director Patricia McBride. The program proves both dancers and audiences will be moved, not always gently, out of their comfort zones. That’s good news for the adventurous.

Inger’s work sets a high standard. A man dressed like one of Samuel Beckett’s “Godot” tramps noiselessly “lifts” the stage curtain. Birds cheep. A dog barks. He passes through a door in a fence (actually a raised platform, cleverly designed by Inger to work vertically or horizontally). Then hell and “Bolero” break loose.

Impulses, mainly sexual ones, run wild. At first, rough romance seems to connect a man and a woman. Later, desire leads to entrapment and panic. When happy, men wear Zippy the Pinhead caps and topple over from joy; when aroused, they dress almost like prison guards and express an unhealthy need for control. Just when “Bolero” boils to its erotic climax – don’t applaud, they’re not done – Ryo Suzuki and Sarah Hayes Harkins dance a plaintive, broken duet to the cooling piano music of Arvo Pärt. They end, if not in hope, in a kind of battered peace.

“Apollo” follows “Walking Mad” the way a chilly blue sky follows a storm. Like Balanchine’s “Serenade,” it’s elegant, inventive and a series of gorgeous moments: It’s a “picture-picture-picture” ballet about the dignified God blessing the muses of epic poetry, pantomime and dance. (Of course, he favors Terpsichore.)

Josh Hall’s a powerful and attractive dancer but has a detached quality onstage, which makes him ideal for the title role: When Alessandra Ball James flirts as Terpsichore, he gravely remains above such mundane thoughts. Balanchine never used bodies as architecture more beautifully: As the women’s legs bend one way, arching away from their arms and Apollo’s body, they resemble buttresses in a cathedral.

“Elsa Canasta” remains rooted in fleshly passions. Cole Porter wrote gorgeous love songs that can be interpreted sentimentally or cynically, and de Frutos leans toward the latter. Action takes place in front of and up a curving staircase that leads offstage; we imagine it ascending to a nightclub, until a curtain pulls back to show that it ends in the air.

Levi Kreis (a Tony-winner for “Million-Dollar Quartet”) soulfully intones Porter’s lyrics, which de Frutos makes us rethink: A couple (Hall and Peter Mazurowski) come undone during “So in Love,” and the climactic “Ridin’ High” gives its couplings an uneasy edge.

The piece sags in the middle, during Porter’s only ballet: the 15-minute “Within the Quota,” which he wrote in 1923 to protest restrictive immigration laws. In the original, an immigrant met a puritanical reformer, jazz baby, cowboy, “colored gentleman” and other archetypes.

The pulsing score suggests Stravinsky knocking off a “Jazz Rite of Spring” after too much champagne. With Kreis offstage, setting this music to the entwinings of bored sophisticates doesn’t make much emotional impact. Still, the idea’s a novel one – and novel ideas can make Hope Muir’s tenure here a success.

Fall Works

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (also 2 p.m. Saturday without “Elsa Canasta”).

Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25-$85; kids $15 at Saturday matinee.

Details: 704-372-1000; www.charlotteballet.org.