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Impression: a telling image impressed on the senses or the mind; an often indistinct or imprecise notion or remembrance; an immediate psychical effect of sensory stimulus.
Impressionist art? Of course. Impressionist music? You bet. Impressionist dance? No—not till now. Carolina Ballet director Robert Weiss and principal guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett have drawn on impressionism in the visual and musical arts to create impressionism in dance.
What's odd is not that there should be impressionist dance, but that there hasn't been. Impressionism captures visual images of the ever-changing effects of color and light. Ballet, which uses light and movement to create evanescent and ever-changing visual effects, seems a natural fit. And you'd expect the common French roots of impressionism and ballet to entwine. But for whatever reason, according to Weiss and Taylor-Corbett, a dance response to Claude Monet's "Impression: Sunrise" (1872), from which the movement took its name, never took hold.
Carolina Ballet's Monet Impressions program, two dances that premiere Thursday evening, ties in with and culminates the outstanding Monet exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which ends its three-month run Jan. 14. When NCMA director Larry Wheeler approached Weiss about a ballet tie-in with the exhibit, Weiss immediately thought of Monet's famed series, done in the last decade of his life when he was almost blind, of water lilies: "I'd always seen them," Weiss says, "as upside-down tutus."
Because he hears in the colors and textures of impressionist music the perfect representation in sound of the painting, Weiss's "Gardens at Giverny" is set to the evanescent harmonies and shimmering orchestrations of Claude Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Nocturnes and of Ernest Chausson's Poem of Love and the Sea. For "Picnic on the Grass," Taylor-Corbett has used Francis Poulenc's elegant Sinfonietta and two of his chamber works. The music's intoxicating mix of sensuality, luxuriousness and elegance, together with Monet's images of the ephemerality of light and nature, is a perfect, and perfectly French, fit for dance's inherent evanescence.
In "Gardens" Weiss has translated painting's two-dimensional stasis to ballet's three-dimensional kinesis by taking inspiration from four Monet paintings in particular—"Water Lilies" (1914), "The Path Under the Rose Arches" (1920), "Artist's Garden" (1900) and "Water Lilies, Evening Effect" (1897)—to tell short stories of an artist's inner and outer worlds.
Taylor-Corbett has based "Picnic" on two very disparate elements from Monet's life and work. The first is that charming picture of French domestic life, "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe" ("Picnic" —not to be confused with Édouard Manet's not-so-domestic painting of the same title). The other is an episode in the artist's real life, when his wife, Camille (the model for all the female figures in "Déjeuner"), fell ill in 1878. The Monets, in desperate financial circumstances, set up a joint household in Vétheuil with the bankrupted businessman and art collector Ernest Hoschedé and his wife, Alice. Alice cared for Monet's wife, as well as the two families' eight children, until Camille succumbed to tuberculosis the next year. Ernest soon left his family, but Alice and Monet continued to live together as a couple. (They finally married in 1892, after Ernest's death.) "Picnic in the Grass" imagines the two families together at an afternoon's divertissement, foreshadowing the events and feelings that turned the relationship between Alice and Monet from deep friendship into love.
Of course, we see none of the tragedy of Monet's blindness or his wife's slow death in his paintings. But art depends on life's ugly realities in ways seldom apparent. As Carolina Ballet's development director, Steve Bishop, observes, "We're in the business of illusion." At the rehearsal I attended I saw the dancers not in chiffon and ribbons, but in ragged tights, toe shoes padded with torn-up paper towels, elastic bandages, even an Air Cast. The illusion we, the audience, see on the stage is strongly dependent not only on the company's punishing work but on some unseen but critically necessary cash.
His company's constricted budget has forced Weiss to make some painful compromises. Most apparent to the ballet's supporters is that he can no longer afford to use live music; recordings are used for every performance except The Nutcracker. A good ballet-orchestra conductor like Nutcracker's Alfred E. Sturgis is exquisitely sensitive not just to the music, but to the dancers as well, and can give the music the elasticity required of any accompanist. Live music allows the dancers to control their product. When recorded music is used, that control shifts to the recording apparatus: It's a cruel irony that to the audience, it's not the music that's "off" from the dancer, it's the dancers who aren't "with" the music.
Carolina Ballet has neither endowments nor state funding (unlike the art museum). Supporters have been generous, but neither one-time donations nor ticket sales can ever cover recurring expenses such as musicians, not to mention mundane replacements and repairs of costumes, scenery and props. Carolina Ballet may never have the budget it needs—who does?—but it would be a blessing indeed if an angel (or a flight of them) could step up and make provision for ballet's life partner, music.