Apollo & Carmina
The curtain opens on Pacific Northwest Ballet's current production of "Apollo & Carmina" to reveal a blank stage, striking blue background and a single male figure in white. That opening sets the tone for the entire ballet: clean, spare, crisp. "Apollo," George Balanchine's earliest surviving ballet, set to Igor Stravinsky's "Apollon Musagete," is lean and lovely.
The young god Apollo (Batkhurel Bold) gives three of the muses (Terpsichore danced by Sarah Ricard Orza, Calliope danced by Maria Chapman, and Polyhymnia danced by Lesley Rausch) their individual gifts, then sits back to enjoy watching them come into their own strengths, finally bringing them back together into a unified chorus once more.
Batkhurel Bold makes a thick and sturdy Apollo, playing off his team of muses well. The four together create a lovely array of shapes moving fluidly together almost as though they are one body, but when they split off they each have an individual sensibility.
The three muses together also become Apollo's gentle companions and followers, then his swooning fans and finally, in a nod to Apollo's role as the sun god, you see them become his team of horses as he drives his chariot across the sky.
I'm not always a fan of Balanchine but I have to say this ballet is a perfect expression with no extra bits of fanfare, creating a sense of a brisk breeze waking the senses.
Almost diametrically opposed to this is the lush spectacle of "Carmina," choreographed by Kent Stowell to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," and making use of 40 dancers, the orchestra and a full chorus. The set is scaled to fit this ambitious choreography-a giant wheel of fortune designed by Ming Cho Lee hovers over the dancers and in front of the chorus on risers behind.
"Carmina Burana" is such an epic piece of music that it encourages excess. The Seattle Choral Company under the direction of Emil de Cou did well with it, with the exception of a few moments here and there at the beginning, when the orchestra and the chorus had a parting of the ways, creating some confusion of sound until they pulled it back together.
All of the soloists (Christina Siemens, Marcus Shelton, and Michael Anthony McGee) were wonderful, and baritone McGee in particular had a glorious range that soared over the stage. In an effective piece of staging, the soloists were on stage -- dressed as monks and a nun -- with the dancers, bringing them into the piece.
"Carmina" is in five parts: Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, Primo Vere, In Taberna, Cour D'Amour, and Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi. The group of men dancing the opening, mirroring the wheel above them with a vigorous circular dance, sets the tone of spectacle for the piece.
When the ballet works best, the dancing adds layers of meaning to the music. While a young monk sings his yearning, Kyle Davis, Benjamin Griffiths, and James Moore dance it, adding depth and power.
The three primal couples representing the ideal for love and fulfillment have some wonderfully unique and sensuous partnering. The yearning in the first section gives way in the second to a playful village dance, full of flirtation and color, and Kaori Nakamura and James Moore are sweet as a young couple in love, which then contrasts in the third part with a drunken scene with Lindsi Dec dancing the part of a whore in a tavern. At the end of a rowdy scene, Dec throws herself open on the floor and the men pile on in a great piece of theater.
But by the time we get to Cour D'Amour, the fourth part of the piece, the choreography begins to feel a little junky and cluttered; there's just a little too much going on. When the corps trades their colorful village costumes for nude body stockings, it becomes a mass of arms and legs and bodies everywhere. At that point the ballet feels like a distraction from the power of the music.
Having said that, Karel Cruz is a delight to watch in this section. While he's quite tall, he has a buoyancy to his jumps that is a pleasure. And in the finale, Stowell pulls the piece back together for a pleasingly splashy climax involving the full company. "Apollo & Carmina" is certainly a pleasant way to spend an evening at the ballet.
"Apollo & Carmina" runs through April 22 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St. in Seattle Center. For info or tickets, call 206-441-2424 or visit pnb.org.