Thursday, May 20, 2010

Time for stereo in modern dance?

Posted By on Thu, May 20, 2010 at 5:25 PM

In the recent matchup between the mighty North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Director’s Choice program at Knight Theatre on May 13 and the wee Caroline Calouche & Co. premiere of The Macabre Masque out at Forestview High School in Gastonia five days earlier, David scored one decisive victory over Goliath. The sound quality at Forestview was clearly superior.

Now I’m not saying that we need to overrun Knight Theater with a wrecking ball, though it is upstaged architecturally by its Siamese sibling, the Bechtler Museum. Nor am I calling for a technology purge in the sound booth.

No, I’m calling for a fresh look at the old recordings routinely played with older modern classics, specifically Balanchine’s Apollo, and suggesting that their time may be past. For her intriguing mash-up of Edgar Allen Poe – combining “The Masque of the Red Death,” “William Wilson,” and “Ligeia” with an overlay of CSI – Calouche chose music by Massive Attack, Nine Inch Nails, Andre Rieu, Secrety Chiefs, Silvano, Fiest, Philip Glass, Bardo, and Cyril Morin for her musical gumbo. Whatever we might say about the compositional quality of this playlist vis-à-vis Igor Stravinsky’s Apollo, all of these recordings are far, far fresher than the best Apollo the composer left us when he conducted it for Columbia Records in 1964.

Since Balanchine’s choreography and its music premiered way back in 1928, I’m still uncertain whether the recording we heard at the Knight was in stereo. It sounded pretty antiquated – and it was potted too high.

Calouche, on the other hand, had the luxury of choosing digital sound for her whole playlist, which made up a little bit for not having the troupe of NCDT dancers or the PAC stagehands at her disposal. Attending an ambitious choreography in Gastonia can sharpen your appreciation for the production slickness we tend to take for granted when Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride deploy their elite corps.

By comparison, Macabre Masque was to dance at the Knight what guerilla theater is to productions at ImaginOn or at the Booth when the polished Rep was in its heyday. Aside from Calouche as masque hostess Lenore; Morgan Crowder as Erzhäler, Amanda Rentschler as his current wife Rowena, and Elizabeth Sturgis as the ghostly Ligeia were all eminently presentable. True, the “William Wilson” segments featuring Jamie Drye seemed too isolated from the rest, and while Calouche’s personal preference for aerial choreography might seem overindulged here in town, it plays well enough in Gastonia, where it probably hasn’t been seen before.

Yet despite all the struggles, Calouche’s Masque ran fairly smoothly and kept a firm grip on our interest. Even with four scene changes in each of the two acts, dancers never stood there waiting for their music – and never did without. I’m not sure the same can be said for the world premiere of Dwight Rhoden’s Broken Fantasy, set to the music of Stravinsky’s Symphony in 3 Movements. The middle segment, presumably accompanied by an “Andante-Interlude,” was danced by Max Levy, Kara Wilkes, and David Ingram to total silence, likely a sound booth snafu.

Up at the Belk, there was nothing ambiguous about the difficulties that beset the touring production of Porgy and Bess. At the start of Act 2 last Saturday night, the curtain went up – but not far enough. After reaching a height of maybe three to five feet, the curtain froze there, necessitating a restart by the orchestra and the singers. Things seemed to be going fairly well on the restart until the curtain froze at a greater height. Unsure whether the situation would improve, singers and musicians forged on until the glitch was repaired, drawing wildly sarcastic cheers from the audience.

So human errors and equipment failures do happen, even on Tryon Street, where we expect the state-of-the-art. I still question why, when the choice can be made beforehand, NCDT and other world-class companies continue to replay antiquated recordings that take some of the edge off pieces like Apollo that otherwise might retain the same power to shock and please as they had when they were first performed.

Surely the old score is retained out of respect for Balanchine, but were he alive today, I’m not so sure he wouldn’t be more than slightly irritated by what he heard. Stravinsky, on the other hand, would likely be offended to hear the quality of his creation compromised by musty, museum-piece reproduction.

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