Local Arts

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s ‘Leonce and Lena’ mixes laughter and a touch of seriousness

Two “Leonce and Lena” narratives go on simultaneously at Knight Theater this weekend.

The one with odd and often hilarious costumes, makeup and movements, will divert children ages 8 and up, at whom Charlotte Ballet has partly aimed it. (Adults will chuckle, too.)

The other, a satire a little more in line with the intentions of Georg Büchner’s 1836 play, stings autocrats who define reality as whatever they decide it is and expect people to follow their outrageous behavior. I spent part of an afternoon this summer with choreographer Christian Spuck, and I figure he’s targeting modern politicians, ours included. He also contemplates the idea that destiny rules our lives whether we admit it or not, connecting us to a romantic partner or ensconcing us in the dull job of ruling the kingdom of Popo.

Leonce (Colby Foss), the prince and heir to dotty King Peter (James Kopecky), is expected to take that job after an arranged marriage to Princess Lena of Pipi. Leonce doesn’t want that or much of anything in particular. When best friend Valerio (Peter Mazurowski) urges flight, they bolt to a distant city. Lena (Sarah Hayes Harkins) and her governess (Alessandra Ball James) have arrived there anonymously beforehand, and Leonce and Lena fall in love without prompting. (You’ll want to read the long synopsis in the program, although Spuck does a good job of establishing moods and relationships.)

The curtain rises on a weird tableau of the cast. They start to jerk and quiver like broken marionettes in the hands of a cruel puppeteer, perhaps Fate. Only Leonce remains calm when we meet him, with the inertia of a deeply bored young man. The impish Valerio mocks him, stirs him to action, and the piece takes off at full speed.

Spuck cast the show with an eye to visual pairings. The long-limbed Foss and Harkins, capable of the elegance briefly called for and knockabout humor, go well together. The slender James (glamorous even in goofiness) and compact, comic Mazurowski do, too. Spuck also cast against type successfully, using Chelsea Dumas as the outrageous flirt who can’t interest Leonce and Kopecky in a rare silly role as the king, whose repertoire of antiquated hipster moves is a hoot.

We’re reminded, down to the last person among the courtiers and clodhoppers at the tavern, how important acting is in dance theater: Each dancer is connected to the action in a different way at all times. The show feels so spontaneous that when someone drops a prop or takes a tumble, we can’t be sure the moment wasn’t planned.

Beneath all the powdered wigs and doll-face makeup, Spuck has a weightier point to make: When we give up independence, we give up our humanity. Peter’s court looks patiently and admiringly on his most idiotic stunts, trusting him to make sense eventually. He crawls across the stage with a lily in his mouth and, sure enough, the men all chomp down on lilies.

“In every good joke there is truth,” Spuck said on that summer visit. “You laugh, and the laughter dies in your throat, because it’s not funny anymore.” He has provided both the laughter and a touch of bitter seriousness in “Leonce and Lena.”

“Leonce and Lena”

WHEN: Oct. 25-26 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $25-$96 ($15 children).

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes with an intermission.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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