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Carolina Ballet's Picasso explores the narratives in Picasso's works more than what makes up their uniquely visual genius.

It's no stretch to explore Picasso's relationship to modern dance 

click to enlarge Carolina Ballet's "Picasso"
  • Carolina Ballet's "Picasso"

Picasso
Carolina Ballet
@ Fletcher Opera Theater
Through Nov. 1

It's one of the hazards Carolina Ballet must have anticipated while preparing its current evening-length collection of works: Any ballet company preparing an homage to Pablo Picasso has a lot of ground to cover—with elevated expectations all along the way.

In part, that's because Picasso designed the sets for five works by the Ballets Russes between 1917 and 1927. That number includes Léonide Massine's landmark Parade, a collaboration featuring the music of Eric Satie and a libretto by Jean Cocteau that is now widely regarded as the "first Cubist ballet." Three years later he would join Massine and Igor Stravinsky to work on Pulcinella.

But even without these historic credits or his paintings and sketches of dancers, Picasso's influence on 20th- and 21st-century dance was profound. His various strategies to evoke multiple perspectives simultaneously on the same body invoke the possibility of radical movement, potentially on the part of both the subject and the viewer. One can hardly call the subjects in earlier works like "Woman Playing the Mandolin" still: In shattering the human form into a complex aggregate of shifting planes, Picasso seems to be trying to capture a range of motion and a span of time in the single image.

Repeatedly he folds and contorts the body's various parts at unlikely or impossible angles to one another in order, we sense, to push beyond; to get at all of the compositional possibilities in the form. Though Merce Cunningham was in sympathy with this notion, and Matthew Bourne has toyed with representing simultaneous time and motion ranges of individuals in works like Play Without Words, the only living choreographer I can point to with confidence in his ability to delve into this part of Picasso's aesthetic is William Forsythe.

The action in "Guernica," Picasso's 1937 masterpiece, all but explodes off the canvas; as we zoom in, zoom out and repeatedly change perspective, its numerous shifts in point of view can only mean that we viewers are as much in motion in the world of the canvas as the humans and animals depicted there. On one level, "Guernica" is a painting that's attempting to be a motion picture. It seeks to plunge us into the world and move us through it as the events depicted take place. To some degree, it succeeds.

My point is this: Choreographers honoring Picasso not only have to take on a formidable body of work with fundamental changes in style along the way; inevitably they have to take on his specific ability to get us to see the world through very different eyes. That's very hard to do, and most artists who attempt it leave out something big. Attempts by choreographers Robert Weiss and Attila Bongar's in this evening of work are game enough, but ultimately, no exception.

In retrospect, particularly given the relatively frugal budget announced during Thursday night's curtain speech, it's probably wise that Artistic Director Weiss chose to focus on two relatively minor works, "Salome" and "Picasso's Harlequin," before the premiere of "The Song of the Dead," based on the handwritten book of Pierre Reverdy's poems that Picasso illustrated in 1948. Bongar's fearless take on "Guernica," ably abetted by Jeff A.R. Jones' set design, arguably delivered to us a single character from that canvas: Lara O'Brien's moving portrait of a woman in a village in a time of war, assisted by a quintet of men led by Marcelo Martinez. What's here is clearly a meaningful sequence, from what we hope will ultimately be a work that admits all of the characters in Picasso's antiwar triumph.

Picasso's illustrations for Reverdy's book involve a series of broad red brushstrokes, mostly made in the margins and white space of its oversize pages. Some suggest primitive sigils; others, totemic or fetish figures from an unknown culture. In Weiss' interpretation, these are represented in marks made on the blocks of two upstage wall fragments and the thin, almost cross-hatched lines of red on designer David Heuvel's otherwise white costumes for principals Melissa Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov.

Composer J. Mark Scearce's score for the six-movement work creates a series of psychologized soundscapes; as pianist Olga Kleiankina dislodges discrete crystalline chips of chords from the piano in one place before dashing through Scearce's dark labyrinth with violinist Michael Danchi and clarinetist Christopher Grymes in others. In Weiss' austere choreography, two characters bloodied by the war try to come to grips with the immensity of its horror, surrounded by a group that represents their memories of the dead. It's a fitting vision of Reverdy's poems, in an evening content to explore the narratives in Picasso's works more than what makes up their uniquely visual genius.

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