Preserving Butler 

Richmond Ballet opens its 20th anniversary season.

Judging from the company’s opening-night performance, which marks the ballet’s 20th professional season, that trust was well placed. The Richmond Ballet danced with confidence and authority in what has become its signature piece (the company has produced it four times before) and a favorite with audiences.

Set to Carl Orff’s orchestral and choral score, the ballet is a tricky proposition for any dancer. Butler merges the styles of contemporary ballet with the dramatic, geometric movement of the modern-dance pioneer Martha Graham. It’s an unusual but effective fusion of divergent styles. The dancers meet this challenge with polished, well-crafted performances without forfeiting spontaneity or attack.

The work is a perfect showcase for its principal dancers. Dana‰ Carter, Katherine Gansman, Igor Antonov and Pedro Szalay are adept both technically and dramatically in the complicated work. Carter’s long limbs and fluid extensions make her particularly suited to Graham’s style. She is sensual and subtle in her movement and phrasing, producing a hypnotic effect at times. Contrary, but equally impressive, is Gansman. Known for being technically proficient, Gansman is just a lil’ wisp of a thing, but packs a big punch. She is fast, focused and efficient, attacking the choreography as if she owns it. As for the men, Antonov and Szalay also are a study in harmonious contrast.

Antonov rejoins Richmond Ballet after dancing the last few years in Germany. His clean, classical line and sturdy technique serve him well in the more virtuosic moments in the ballet. Szalay also makes a strong showing. He usually looks very good in the company’s contemporary works, and here is no exception. With his strong jump and stage presence, it’s easy to tell how much he enjoys performing, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Both men also are conscientious partners to Gansman and Carter in the rigorous pas de deux sections, seamlessly exchanging partners throughout the work.

If there was one drawback to the opening night performance, it had nothing to do with the dancers. The problem rested in set design, or the lack thereof. “Carmina Burana” should be a spectacle. Productions of the ballet in different cities have huge, Gothic sets with wheels of fortune as their centerpieces, symbolizing the fickleness of fate. Unfortunately, this production had no sets, and the lighting design was limited. This didn’t detract from the integrity of the performance, but a set would be nice in the future. Also, live music and a larger venue would make this production even more powerful.

It will be interesting to see how the production evolves in the next few weeks. The Richmond Ballet begins a “Carmina Burana” symposium Nov. 1 with original members of the 1959 production and other dance luminaries committed to preserving Butler’s work. These elder statesmen of dance will work with Richmond Ballet dancers, coaching their performances and trying to codify a definitive version of the ballet to be produced around the world. The dancers from the 1959 production may be struck by how fresh Butler’s work remains more than four decades after its premiere. Yet again, when does a great work of art ever lose its potency? The Butler powwow is a great distinction for Richmond Ballet. It puts Richmond on the map in the world’s dance community and continues the company’s growth under Winslett’s artistic direction. S

Richmond Ballet’s “Carmina Burana,” continues through Nov. 9 in the company’s Studio Theatre, 407 E. Canal St. Tickets range from $20-$25. Showtimes vary. 344-0906. www.richmondballet.com.


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