Even if you don’t know it, there’s no doubt you’re familiar with Carmina Burana. The Medieval-era poems, dating back as far as the 11th century, were set to music by composer Carl Orff in 1935 and 1936. And since then, the cantata has permeated throughout our cultural landscape in a number of places, most memorably in the film industry.
Take this epic battle scene from the movie 300, for example.
Yes, that’s Carmina Burana. Now that the light bulbs are flashing and the brain is firing, let’s turn to its relevance today — particularly, this weekend. Cincinnati Ballet takes the stage at historic Music Hall (Feb. 8-11) for a double-bill performance of Carmina Burana + Serenade. While the two pieces are quite different in tone, the overall dancing is fantastic.
Serenade is the first number. Ballet aficionados should know this piece well, as it was choreographed by George Balanchine with music by Tchaikovsky. The opening tableau focuses on 16 female dancers in long blue dresses with their right arms posed, like statues, as if to block the sun. They hold this position for a beat until — finally — they move. While there are a couple of male dancers who make an appearance, this is very much a female-driven story. I use the word “story” loosely here because there’s no real beginning, middle, or end. Rather, the production is a major hat tip to the ladies of Cincinnati Ballet.
And it’s amazing how well they remain in sync — with every position, with every flutter. Your challenge, as an audience member, is to find moments when they aren’t simultaneously wowing you with their technique, togetherness, and feminine mystique. The final scene is just as compelling as the opener: Sirui Liu is raised in the air by three men while seven other female dancers, in a unified formation, follow behind her on pointe. I forgot one last “t” adjective. That’d be talent, and these 20 women are chock full of it.
If Serenade is classic and time-honored, then Carmina Burana is edgy and fresh. Nicolo Fonte’s ballet made its world premiere in November of last year by Ballet West. It’s making its Cincinnati premiere this weekend. Set against a red backdrop, the curtain lifts and we come upon a scene of dancers dressed in nude-colored tights, in what feels like the pits of hell, with the May Festival Chorus “floating” above the stage.
I admit, I got a little emotional. I don’t know maybe it’s leftover grief from those This Is Us bawlfests. (Maybe.) Probably not. Maybe it’s just because the opening scene is phenomenal. And it doesn’t stop there. Choreographing to a well-known score like Carmina Burana is a double-edged sword. It gives the audience an immediate touchpoint of reference. “Oh, I’ve heard that before. ( Yay, something familiar!)” At the same time, however, it’s such an iconic piece of music that if you don’t create something on the same level, you’ve done it a disservice. Happy to report that Fonte, the Cincinnati Ballet dancers, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the May Festival Chorus have elevated Carmina Burana to new heights or, as the music alludes, perhaps lowered them (in an equally wonderful fashion) to greater pits of despair, tension, and fury.
The dancing is bold. It’s sharp. It’s striking. It features my longtime loves Cervilio Amador and Rodrigo Amarales, who continue to prove why they are Cincinnati Ballet’s leading men. The cast also includes one of my newer crushes, Taylor Carrasco. He brings such personality to his dancing that one can’t help but take note, even amid the crowd.
Now I want to offer a special shoutout to the costume department, because the costumes in this ballet are exceptional. I lost track of the changes, but I’m pretty sure it’s around six different looks. From the nude tights to the black hoods to the shimmering gold to the fancy red suit of that May Festival singer, the costumes are a marvel in and of themselves.
And with that, it’s your turn to marvel. If not, I fear your life might be doomed, set to the soundtrack of Carmina Burana, which, ya know, would be cool for about five minutes, until you realized something really ominous was about to happen.
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Cincinnati Ballet performs Carmina Burana + Serenade at Music Hall this weekend, February 8-11.