A delightful evening with the Carolina Ballet

by Rob Tiller

We saw the Carolina Ballet’s new program on Friday night, and loved it! The first of the two feature works was Fancy Free, by Jerome Robbins with a jazzy score by Leonard Bernstein. It’s about young three sailors out on the town (and led to the musical On the Town) looking for female companionship. The sailors joke around, drink, fight, and come to full attention at the sight of a passing lady. It is sweet and funny, and also marvelously accurate on the overwhelming force of male and female attraction. We particularly enjoyed Eugene Shlapko’s solo work, but everyone was wonderful.

The other piece on the program was Carolina Jamboree, choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. It featured music by The Red Clay Ramblers, seven musicians who describe themselves as “a North Carolina string-band” with a repertoire based on “old-time mountain music, as well as country, rock, bluegrass, New Orleans, gospel, and the American Musical.” It is nothing if not eclectic, and in fact there are not just strings — there are drums, brass, and electronics, among other things. Most every one plays an instrument, or two or three, and sings. I wouldn’t say any Rambler’s singing by itself is great, but together they’re fantastic. It did not seem bogus when the audience joined in, shouting and clapping — it seemed irresistible. Alicia Fabry was haunting as the unhinged girl in the Red Rocking Chair. Also outstanding was Lindsay Purrington as Nell in the Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey.

The show was at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, which had an enthusiastic crowd, but quite a few empty seats. It’s disappointing that it wasn’t sold out. Some ballet is not instantly accessible, but these pieces really are. I can’t imagine anyone not relating to the funny randy sailors, their admired and harassed love interests, or the colorful country characters in Jamboree. The performances were touching, energizing, and tremendously fun.

Perhaps more than with any other art, there is no substitute for the experience of live ballet. Filmed ballet doesn’t come close to the experience of a live performance. I discussed this recently with Ricky Weiss, the company’s artistic director, and he confirmed that, although he looks at lots of ballet footage, the essence of a piece is nearly impossible to capture on film. That leaves human memory, which is imperfect, to hold what it can.

In this respect, the audience is essential to the art. If a performance drops in the forest and no one sees it, does it exist? Not fully. Performing arts are about communicating feelings, and it takes both a communicator and recipient to complete the artistic circuit. We need our dancers, of course, for the beauty and truth they give us, but they also need us.

After this weekend, the Carolina Ballet is presenting the Fancy Free/ Carolina Jamboree program one more time, in Durham, on Friday April 26.