It started, as many relationships do, with a telephone call between old friends – in this case, proposing a union neither had contemplated for decades. Nearly two years and roughly five dozen children later, the public’s ready to meet the family April 6 and 7 at Belk Theater.
That’s when 150 artists will come together in “The Rite of Spring,” a collaboration among the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, dancers from Charlotte Ballet II and Charlotte Ballet’s apprentice program, and young Reach dancers from three local recreation centers.
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That program will begin with another ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky, this one choreographed in 1928 by George Balanchine: “Apollo,” with Charlotte Ballet recreating the success from its Fall Works program. After intermission, all hell will break loose.
Well, maybe all heck. The original scenario about rival tribes, pagan rituals and the sacrifice of a virgin – the one that caused a scandal at its 1913 premiere in Paris – is too potent for elementary schoolers. Choreographer Peter Chu has removed that narrative and based his movements on simpler images of growth and unity.
You’d have found him last week at McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance, balancing the skills of professional and pre-professional dancers with the slightly unfocused energy of youngsters who may never have been inside a professional theater, let alone on its stage.
“It’s now a story of connections, about connecting with compassion to Nature, to the Earth, to our inner selves, to each other,” he says. “There’s no ‘star’ hierarchy, either. The Charlotte Ballet dancers struggle with what I give them – it’s not necessarily their strength, when they’re ballet-trained – and the Reach dancers do, too. We have different ages and body types and skill levels. It’s a beautiful work in progress.”
The ballet started Reach nine years ago with a $78,000 grant from the Women’s Impact Fund and has run it through donations ever since. Those support three-year scholarships for children with natural talent, the potential for training and no money to pay for traditional classes. It operates in five community centers, three of which – Albemarle Road, Hickory Grove and Ivory Baker – sent young dancers to “Rite.”
Watching those dancers swirl in “storm circles” or coalesce into an angular mountain of bodies, Chu seemed pleased. “Touch other with intention, but respectfully,” he urged the smaller ones, as they formed a tree with a hundred roots and branches. “Be very clear in what you’re doing.”
What they’re doing springs from a project created by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 15 years ago and recreated in other cities.
The Charlotte start
CSO music director Christopher Warren-Green pitched it to Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir, calling her after the company announced her hiring in 2016. Muir watched footage from Berlin and signed on.
Though the symphony has always been a house band for the ballet’s annual “Nutcracker,” the two groups haven’t co-created something this big since a ’90s “Carmina Burana,” which also included three vocal soloists and choruses from the symphony and Opera Carolina.
Muir says “Rite” accomplishes two of her long-term goals: “to create more collaborations, and to have live music whenever possible. The European musicians’ union requires you to hire players if music can be performed live or pay them if you don’t use them; Scottish National Ballet (where she last worked) has its own orchestra. Dancers prefer to dance to live music. It makes them listen actively, rather than passively getting used to the sound of a CD.”
She knew the versatile Chu, who runs the contemporary dance company chuthis in Las Vegas, has choreographed two seasons of “So You Think You Can Dance” and has directed a full-evening work for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. She figured working with almost 60 young Reach dancers – all but one of them girls – would be a challenge he could handle.
Chu came to Charlotte for a week in October to lay out basic ideas, returned for a week in January, then entrusted the Reach dancers to their teachers and the pros to Mark Diamond, program director for Charlotte Ballet II. Chu came back to Charlotte for the two weeks before the show to hone his team.
“I’ve been all over the dance world, and the Reach program is one of the best of its kind I’ve seen,” he says. “At the end of the day, this project is really about these kids. Some are good enough to work with the Charlotte Ballet II dancers, and some have never danced before. But they all have a spark. I’m so touched when I see them light up.
“Some will go on to make art in their lives, but what we’re really teaching is the value of artistic creativity. These are the future donors and benefactors and audience members.”
These moves ‘fit easily on our bodies’
Laila Jones and Eva Bonus, 9-year-olds from the Hickory Grove center who had never heard Stravinsky’s tricky music, are having a good time while trying to live up to a high standard.
“It can be confusing,” Eva admits. “Sometimes Peter changes things: We go to one spot one night, then a different spot the next night, and I want to ask, ‘When will he make up his mind?’ But he gives us good advice, especially about using our spines. He’s fun to work with.”
Eva and Laila both say they feel a little pressure to be perfect, especially around the Charlotte Ballet dancers. But Laila, who likes the way the ballet depicts “everything coming back to life,” says “Peter’s movements fit easily on our bodies.” She’s so enthused that she hopes someday to get a scholarship to Charlotte Ballet Academy: “Dance is my focus now.”
Positive ripples from “Rite” have flowed in all directions. The Charlotte Ballet II dancers get a work of their own, because the first company was just coming off “The Most Incredible Thing” and had to get ready for Spring Works. Muir now wants Chu to create a piece sometime for the first company. Symphony musicians get challenged by a piece where ever-changing meters tax their abilities. Muir expects the crossover event will increase audiences for both participants: “When I go to symphony concerts, I see a lot of faces I don’t see at our shows.”
Even administrators share the buzz. Jeffrey Lee, who joined the symphony’s board of directors after serving on its board of trustees, says this project is typical thinking for Mary Deissler, the president and CEO who has shaken things up there for two seasons.
“She wants the symphony to be relevant to the artistic life of the city beyond its traditional sphere,” he says. “The residency for (bluegrass/classical musician) Mark O’Connor, the Brew Pub series with the $5 beers, the concert at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church that (blended) classical music and jazz – these are all things that reach new audiences.
“Events like ’The Rite of Spring’ with the Reach dancers are what attract me to spend time and money on the board,” and they “encourage socially conscious donors to give, as well as corporate sponsors. They’re a great idea all around.”