City Ballet’s sensory feast: ‘Carmina Burana’

City Ballet co-directors Elizabeth and Steven Wistrich have danced and staged “Carmina Burana” many times over the years, but none as grand as the version presented this weekend at the Spreckels.

The ballet takes inspiration from Carl Orff’s dramatic cantata, “Carmina Burana,” (Songs of Beuren) gleaned from the bawdy poems and songs of witty goliards – irreverent monks and rebellious students – from the 13th century. A ubiquitous classical music staple, the rousing “O Fortuna” opening and closing is heard everywhere, from movies to TV commercials.

But nothing compares to live performance.   The combination of vivid dances about medieval monks, beer guzzling, and courtly eroticism, accompanied with a live orchestra and 100-voice choir is a visceral experience. When all of the elements come together, your spine and skin tingle.

Sung in a mix of medieval German and Latin, dancers express carefree and steamy concepts through movement.

Ariana Samuelsson and Geoff Gonzalez dance irreverent songs in "Carmina Burana." Photo Credit: Dale Stokes

Ariana Samuelsson and Geoff Gonzalez dance irreverent songs in “Carmina Burana.”
Photo Credit: Dale Stokes

Erica Alvarado and Gerardo Gil show strong partnering in “Omnia sol temperat,” though in one lift on Friday, Gil didn’t know where to put his hands. The couple displays more playful artistry in the blind-fold game section, where Alvarado and an ensemble of women take their hair down and whirl in sheer icy white gowns.

Geoff Gonzalez, whose athleticism and theatrical skills are always in high gear, is immensely likeable in the Tavern section, swigging beer with the guys before joining his seductive partner, Ariana Samuelsson. In their duet “Olim lacus colueram,” which translates to “Once I swam in lakes,” Samuelsson’s precise footwork is a delight, but so is her satisfied expression.

The men of City Ballet are strong and fit and look better than ever.  One might assume they’re following the training of Gonzalez.  Wistrich pushes physicality in this production, and the men excel in jumps and lifts.

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Orff whipped old poems and songs into music, but he didn’t know the original melodies. He incorporated joyful sections and wonderful folk rhythms, often accented with castanets. Wistrich takes care not to overpower those moments and balances big lifts with simple waltz steps and weaves.

The tension grows to a bonfire in the final sections with the two couples, Alvarado and Gil, Samuelsson and Gonzalez.  And those sections all lead to the most thrilling solo, “Dulcissime, ah! Totam tibi subdo me” or “Sweetest one, ah! To thee I give myself totally!”  It’s an orgasmic moment.

Also on the program is “Seasons,” set to Vivaldi. Kyndra Ricker and Katie Spagnoletti are radiant in pink. Newcomer Ryosuke Ogura reveals a solid core, but his neck and shoulders are stiff.

Both “Carmina” and the “Seasons” focus on concepts and images, not a linear story, and they complement each other, even though their musical scores are separated by more than 200 years. The decision to place a full-length “Seasons” before “Carmina” is ambitious. The show runs two plus hours, which is overly long for some.  Sets in both dances are stark. Slides in “Carmina” depict monasteries and arched doorways. Fuzzy background slides in “Seasons” could be improved.  Winter looks like frozen broccoli instead of a regal leafless tree. Regrettably, the musical arrangement for “Seasons” uses an electronic harpsichord that overwhelms the string section.

But Orff’s score sounds lovely in the historic Spreckels. The City Ballet orchestra, directed by John Nettles, is sensitive to the action on stage and sounds crisp. Singers fill the theater boxes that line the walls of the theater. Voices bounce from side to side, creating a marvelous stereo effect.  You can feel the vibrations in your bones.

City Ballet continues to raise the bar artistically and has brought live music back to ballet.  Patrons have enjoyed Balanchine’s “Agon,” “The Nutcracker,” and “Giselle,” and this strong combination of “Seasons” and “Carmina Burana” is a fine way to end the company’s 20th season.  Don’t wait, go and support it!


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  1. Alexander on May 14, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Thanks Kris, this looks like a truly dazzling production, with an enormous amount of talent and experience on show. I am unfortunately going to miss out this time, but hopefully there will be a reprise in the near future!

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