Sunday’s Pantages performance of “Carmina Burana” by the Tacoma City Ballet began and ended with the kind of stunning spectacle that sends shivers down your spine. In the middle, though, was a mix of excellent dancing, uneven choreography and some problematic issues with the sound from Tacoma Symphony Chorus, ballet orchestra and soloists that distracted from a production otherwise impressive in scale and concept.
It’s the fifth time the ballet has mounted “Carmina,” and other local dance companies have also set movement to the famous 1937 cantata — something that composer Carl Orff thought essential but is rarely done. But director Erin Ceragioli’s vision of the Wheel of Fortune not just looming over the stage as a giant set piece, but coming to life in rings of whirling, multicolored dancers is still powerful. Add in three enormous crosses descending slowly to the stage with a dancer atop each one, arms outstretched like a beautiful corpse, and you have a highly symbolic work that fully captures the pagan power of the music. Crisp movements for the opening and closing “O Fortuna” sections along with a forceful orchestra and red-gold lighting up the drama even more.
It’s the middle of “Carmina” that has problems — too many to ignore, even for a dance company that’s largely school kids and an amateur chorus in a midsize town production. Putting the chorus far upstage behind a scrim works well visually, but dampens the sound until movements like “Were diu Werlt” become background music, at times inaudible. It also results in major ensemble problems, especially during those movements during which Orff turns the choir into a second percussion section. Even the Vivace treble choir (clean and flutey) had trouble staying together from opposite theater boxes.
It’s hard to suggest an alternative staging, but this one just doesn’t work musically.
The chorus issue is compounded by the complete lack of text and translation, either in the program or as surtitles. Most folk in Tacoma don’t know medieval Latin and German, and this text isn’t just atmospheric background — it gives meaning to the entire work and is crucial to the tone painting. Without it, a cantata depicting deep themes of fate, lust, suffering and the meaning of life becomes just neo-classical eye-candy.
Musically, too, ongoing issues of orchestra intonation and even wrong entries marred an otherwise solid choir performance and stellar work by soloists. Baritone Barry Johnson contrasted eerie falsetto with luscious low notes, tenor Geoffrey Boers personified angst as the roasting swan (though was overbalanced by the orchestra) and soprano Erin Guinup, though occasionally melodramatic, shone with a glittery, rich tone.
While this choreography is uneven — stunningly beautiful tableaux and Cirque du Soleil-lifts alongside long sections of dull tendus and relevés for the corps de ballet — the dancers gave some excellent performances. Carolynne Guinup fused effortless flexibility with lyrical naivety as the Goddess of Love, Chloe Blair was poised as the Goddess of Light, and Belle Schwanger executed a perfect, breathtaking swing up from ’50s hip straddle into a forearm balance atop Joel Myers’ shoulders.
Kudos also to the male leads Myers, Kyle Johnson, Caleb Adams and Timothy Joyce, for a graceful athleticism that had them spending the entire ballet poising girls on one hand overhead, swinging them around their backs, flipping them over, running across the stage holding them aloft and even whirling two around at once.
Musically, this staging needs attention. Yet overall, the solemn candle procession, dynamic pas de deux, symmetrical tableaux and final dramatic circles make this “Carmina” a dance spectacle rare in Tacoma.