This past Wednesday night’s performance at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center was a historic event. John Butler’s “Carmina Burana” premiered in 1959. Original cast member and icon of American dance, Carmen de Lavallade, was in attendance to receive the Richmond Ballet’s Lifetime Achievement in Dance award. This is only the sixth time the company has extended this honor since their inception in 1957. After dress rehearsal, the dancers gathered in an adoring circle on stage around de Lavallade for one last pep talk from their mentor. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” she said before reminding them to listen to the music. “Music is food for the soul” and when you’re in the zone “you become part of the sound.”
“Carmina Burana…felt like a celebration of the theatrical power to embody the range of possibilities of the human condition—from sensual and joyous to angsty and tortured by fate.
The evening began with Richmond Ballet Artistic Director Stoner Winslett introducing the program, the lifetime achievement award, and the award’s presenter, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. The governor’s appearance seemed to cause audible distress in the audience as a chorus of groans echoed all the way back to the lawn. When de Lavallade came to the stage, she received a long, standing ovation. There was a specific dissonance between the woman of color, famous for breaking barriers in dance, and the man presenting her with the award. However, it cannot be denied that de Lavallade’s contributions to American culture and identity are deserving of both the award and the honor of recognition by the Governor’s office.
While “Carmina Burana” was certainly the main event, the program began with “Thrive,” an original neoclassical ballet by Richmond Ballet Associate Artistic Director Ma Cong. This was the first time that the work had been performed with live music featuring a specially rearranged score by English composer Oliver Davis (who was in attendance), It was performed by the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Symphony Chorus, The City Choir of Washington and conducted by Erin Freeman. The crux of “Thrive” was in its partnering work which was executed with seeming effortlessness as Sabrina Sabino, Jack Miller, Izabella Tokev, Naomi Wood, Zacchaeus Page, and Aleksey Babayev whipped and flipped into one lifted position after another.
After a brief intermission it was finally time for “Carmina Burana.” Just as de Lavallade had said, it was all about the music. Carl Orff’s score—based on secular verses recovered from the library of a medieval Bavarian monastery—leans heavily into the spectacular. From the epic, cinematic “O fortuna” which opens and closes the piece, to the soaring vocal lines and dance music that sounds like it was taken from a medieval rave, every aspect of the score is already theatrical and programatic. The singers from Wolf Trap Opera—tenor Lunga Eric Hallam, soprano Esther Tonea, and baritone Daniel Rich—joining the dancers on stage and the chorus extending halfway down both sides of the house only added to the immersive drama. Dancers (and the National Strategic Reserve of Abdominals) Cody Beaton, Eri Nishihara, Ira White, and Khaiyom Khojaev seemed to revel both in the musicality and the physicality of the work. They were animated by the music, but without cartoonish determinism where the choreography just looks the way the music sounds. If music is food for the soul, they were at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“Carmina Burana” was considered exceptionally erotic when it premiered in the middle of the last century. With its revealing costumes and suggestive, “profane” subject matter it still carries that valence with not insignificant force. At the end of the evening, it still felt less overtly sexual than many of today’s youth dance competitions. Rather than simply being erotic, the entire work, from low notes to high legs, felt like a celebration of the theatrical power to embody the range of possibilities of the human condition—from sensual and joyous to angsty and tortured by fate. Even though it is clearly recognizable as a work of dance from the 1950s, it has been consistently performed for over 60 years for a good reason.
If you were unable to attend Wednesday’s performance at Wolf Trap, Richmond Ballet, The Richmond Symphony and Chorus, and the City Choir of Washington will reprise both “Thrive” and “Carmina Burana” on September 22-24, 2023 as part of Richmond Ballet’s fall season.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission.
“Carmina Burana” was performed by Richmond Ballet on August 30, 2023 at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road Vienna, VA 22182. A digital program from the event can be found here. More information about Richmond Ballet and their upcoming productions is available on their website. For more information and tickets for upcoming performances at Wolf Trap, go online.