A canny artistic director at a ballet company programs some pieces to please her audience, some to stretch her choreographers and some to challenge her dancers. Hope Muir did all three with Charlotte Ballet’s “Fall Works.” (I saw the final dress rehearsal Wednesday at Knight Theater, because I had to review a musical about a former Treasury Secretary Thursday.)
“Fancy Free,” which recreated Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the 1944 premiere, opened the show. Then came “Facsimile,” not with Robbins’ steps but with new ones by resident choreographer Sasha Janes, who changed it to the story of a man fighting depression among merrymakers. French choreographer Medhi Walerski’s “Petite Cérémonie” capped the night with movements of remarkable intricacy, which demanded and received crisply committed execution. (The Charlotte Symphony will play the first two pieces live in performance; I heard a recording.)
Though Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein premiered “Fancy Free” seven weeks before D-Day, the war seems far away from three sailors (James Kopecky, Peter Mazurowski and Anson Zwingelberg) in a New York bar on shore leave. They try to impress flirty vixens Sarah Hayes Harkins and Alessandra Ball James, first by dancing and then by brawling, but the ladies leave. Having learned nothing, they chase a third woman (Sarah Lapointe) offstage with eye-bugging ardor.
What seemed like sporty fun back then plays oddly decades later; the trio snatch Harkins’ purse to keep her among them, tossing it back and forth like nasty schoolboys on a playground, and spin her from man to man. They objectify the women, who object only when they themselves get bored. But Robbins’ solos for the dance-off — comic, loosely suave and aggressively hip-swerving, like a proto-“West Side Story” — hold up. (Robbins would’ve been 100 this week; Bernstein’s not the only guy having a centenary this year.)
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I never saw Robbins’ “Facsimile,” but Janes’ version works. Kopecky commands the stage as the downhearted custodian for a Coney Island-style sideshow complete with bearded lady, acrobats and clowns. (Kopecky came into his own with this program, taking two leads and contributing to the final 15-person piece.)
Janes has given the ensemble entertaining bits, but his strength has long been the pas de deux. The most memorable moments came in two of those, one where the Ringmaster (Drew Grant) tries to soothe the inconsolable Kopecky, and one where Kopecky seeks tentative happiness in the arms of a cheerful woman (Chelsea Dumas). The ambiguously upbeat ending gives hope without making promises.
Speaking of ambiguity, Walerski’s “Cérémonie” swings like a pendulum between goofy humor and eruptions of elegance; I know that’s a strange phrase, but the dancers suddenly seemed suave among the silliness. It starts with the stately performers walking down aisles and in from the wings to join in a pattern of small steps. Though it begins and ends with order, glorious disorder rules the middle part — and maybe that’s Walerski’s point about human psychology.
Ben Ingel juggles three balls while delivering a lecture about the differences in male and female thought patterns. A woman tickles her guffawing partner with her feet; another chokes hers with his tie; a third thuds down onto the stage and says “Sorry!” Dancers break away from the group for top-speed conniptions with each other, then flow back into the mass.
Virtuosity for its own sake? If so, it’s a pleasure to watch dancers deliver it.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Family matinee 2 p.m. Saturday without “Fancy Free.”
Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
Tickets: $25-$85 ($15 children at matinee).
Details: 704-372-1000; www.charlotteballet.org.