Cupid's Chucktown 

Ballet + symphony = a great evening on Valentine's Day

Masterpieces of Dance
Sat. Feb. 14, 7:30 p.m.
$10-$45
Sottile Theatre
44 George St.
(843) 723-7334
www.charlestonballet.org

Around eight seasons ago, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and Ballet Theatre performed together — and I was part of the show: a dance production of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. There I was, perched (along with the rest of the CSO Chorus) on a rickety riser to one side of the stage. From where I was, I couldn't see the dancers. I was frustrated.

So it's about time Charleston's two arts entities got together again — and they will do just that, on Valentine's Day at the Sottile Theatre. It promises to be quite an evening, featuring three very different works, one of them a cherished number by George Balanchine. The remaining interpretations will be courtesy of Charleston's own mistress of dance, Jill Eathorne Bahr. CSO Music Director David Stahl will lead his orchestra from the Sottile's pit. I had the pleasure of interviewing both artists recently, and it turns out they've been talking about a new collaboration for some time now.

As they helped me realize, dancing to live music has both its pros and cons. Just as a conductor makes his orchestra "breathe" with his singers in opera, he can tailor the music's pace and sound to accommodate dance movements. He must work closely with the choreographer, planning to speed up a passage or linger over a phrase to match the physical action onstage. Live music thus offers dancers a far broader range of interpretive possibilities.

But there are risks. Most dancers — especially those in smaller ballet troupes like ours — are conditioned to working to "canned" music that never changes from one performance to the next. So they must keep on their toes (both literally and figuratively) to stay in synch with a live orchestra.

The evening's exotic menu will include three tempting and distinct courses. The first is Who Cares?, a piece that overflows with strong American flavors, thanks to the beloved music of George Gershwin. This is the evening's Balanchine number, one of six that grace the CBT's repertoire. Balanchine, considered by many to be the world's greatest choreographer, is revered for his uncanny artistic fusions: "Hear the dance — see the music," he used to say. As Bahr says, not every ballet troupe gets to do Balanchine — only a select number of American dance companies are "invited" by the Balanchine Trust. And so Charleston's dance fans are a wonderfully privileged lot.

Then we'll get a quite a different treatment of Claude Debussy's impressionistic masterpiece, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. But here, it'll be an afternoon with a faun — and the faun will be nothing less than a dance incarnation of Marilyn Monroe in her well-known 1950s-era milieu.

The biggest number will be a varied dance epic based on English master Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Britten may have written it with young people in mind, but the piece contains a tremendous range of moods, emotions, and effects that will give CBT's dancers both a stiff workout and endless interpretive possibilities. I expect we'll get drama, grandeur, comedy, and more. New narration and acting elements will be employed. And Bahr promises some really spectacular dance moments.

Still, as excited as I am about this collaboration, I couldn't help but wonder at first ... why the sudden scheduling of such an extravaganza, in the midst of a financial crisis that still threatens potential doom for both organizations? But, after talking to their leaders — as well as CSO Executive Director Jan Newcomb — I was convinced this overdue joint effort is a great idea. What better way to underscore the value of our artistic institutions to our community — especially in such precarious times?

Newcomb calls it a "win-win" proposition. After reminding me of last year's CSO collaboration with Charleston Stage on Fiddler on the Roof, she hinted that we may well be enjoying further moments of artistic cross-fertilization in the future. Maybe it's time for Chucktown's beleaguered performing arts community to form a more united front.

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