In 1997 Carolina Ballet began as a professional dance company,* being created from Raleigh Dance Theatre, Inc., which was founded in 1984 by Ann Vorus. This pre-professional regional dance company was later led by her successor as Artistic Director Mary LeGere. In the fall of 1993 Raleigh lawyer Ward Purrington suggested to Ms. Vorus and the Raleigh Dance Theatre board that the company aspire to professional status.
After exhaustive planning and subsequent interviewing of candidates from all over the world, Robert Weiss, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and past artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet, was selected in April 1997 as the founding artistic director of the new professional company, known as Carolina Ballet, Inc. Upon the advice of other successful ballet companies, Mr. Weiss spent the fiscal year 1997-98 building awareness in the community and raising a three-year reserve on which to grow.
The Company had its first gala in March 1998, which featured dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Kirov Ballet and Miami City Ballet, and which kicked off Carolina Ballet’s first subscription campaign. The company’s inaugural season opened in the fall of 1998 with 21 dancers from around the world and more than 2,600 subscribers. During Carolina Ballet’s first season the company attracted the acclaim of critics and audiences alike. The season began with a performance of George Balanchine’s Square Dance at Cary’s Regency Park, which was attended by over 2,500 people, followed by an All Balanchine production as a tribute to Mr. Weiss’ mentor at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. The company then performed a world premiere staging of Handel’s Messiah with choreography by Robert Weiss and additional choreography by Sacramento Ballet’s Amy Seiwert, Duke University’s Tyler Walters and Carolina Ballet’s own Timour Bourtasenkov. This work was performed in collaboration with members of the Raleigh Oratorio Society, the Opera Company of North Carolina, the National Opera Company and North Carolina Symphony. In March 1999, a world premiere collaboration with the Ciompi Quartet was performed at Duke University’s Reynolds Auditorium. The season ended with the classic full-length Romeo & Juliet, with new choreography by Robert Weiss, presented in May in collaboration with North Carolina Symphony.
Carolina Ballet’s second season was an unqualified success as well. Presenting both new, innovative ballets and classic works, the company of 26 dancers performed 30 times before 34,283 audience members in four North Carolina locations – Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem and Greenville. Robert Weiss completed his Messiah adding choreography for Parts II and III, and the ballet quickly took its place among other Triangle area Christmas traditions. Highlights of the season included The Kreutzer Sonata, a unique combination of theater and ballet, with original choreography by Robert Weiss, based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, set to the music of Leos Janacek and Ludwig van Beethoven and specially commissioned music by J. Mark Scearce and an actor narrating the story as the dancers acted it out; a new ballet by Duke University dance professor Tyler Walters that was funded by a national Choo-San Goh Foundation grant; and the premiere of Robert Weiss’ full-evening production of Carmen, only the second known choreography and the first by an American artist. The season was capped by a June program featuring Cabaret, a unique collaborative effort joining the grace and beauty of ballet choreographed by renowned Tony Award nominee Lynne Taylor-Corbett with the elegance and charm of acclaimed cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci performing live on stage with the dancers. In recognition of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Rodin exhibition, Carolina Ballet also performed Margo Sappington’s brilliant Rodin, Mis en Vie. The company’s work was praised in several national publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time.
By the third season, Carolina Ballet increased in size to 30 dancers and continued to perform exciting and innovative ballets that included Weiss’ new version of Coppelia, Messiah (again to sold out audiences), new ballets with the Ciompi Quartet by Christopher Wheeldon, Tyler Walters and Richard Tanner, and a Classics program of Concerto Barocco, Tarantella, The Lilac Garden, and The Moor’s Pavane. Lynne Taylor-Corbett created a new Carmina Burana on Carolina Ballet that received rave reviews locally and from Clive Barnes in Dance Magazine.
The 2001-2002 season marked two significant moves for Carolina Ballet. The company moved into a new, specially designed studio in Raleigh, where for the first time the administrative and artistic arms of the company were under one roof. In addition, Carolina Ballet moved from being a regional touring company to a national and international touring company when it performed on the "Works & Process" series at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and participated in the II Dance Festival in April 2002 in Budapest, Hungary. Another significant milestone for the fourth season was the premiere of Weiss’ new $1 million Nutcracker, sponsored by Progress Energy and presented with North Carolina Symphony at Christmastime to over 30,000 patrons. This premiere production of Nutcracker included 128 children from the Triangle community. Two special productions were presented for free to Wake County public school children. The season ended with Robert Weiss’ new Firebird on a program with Balanchine’s Who Cares? and Valse Fantaisie and Peter Martins’ Valse Triste.
By its fifth season at Carolina Ballet had grown to a company of 34 dancers. Of that number twelve dancers (plus ballet master Marin Boieru) were founding members of Carolina Ballet. Two of the most important programs of the season were Weiss’ new Stravinsky’s Clowns (all new choreography for Jeu de Cartes, Petruschka and Pulcinella) that The Wall Street Journal called "an evening of real brilliance," and The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen to close the season. Weiss invited Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Damian Woetzel to each choreograph a ballet with him for this program. Damian Woetzel received a Choo-San Goh grant for his choreography for the fairy tale The Nightingale. Carolina Ballet added Rocky Mount, Wilmington, and Pinehurst to its list of North Carolina cities where it performs.
After the successes of the first five years, Carolina Ballet continued to grow. The company had 37 dancers at the start of the sixth season and adopted the system of ranking the dancers with seven principals, ten soloists, 15 corps members, and five apprentices. The company added tours to Asheville and Pinehurst to its already established second home in Winston-Salem. The highlight of the sixth season was the 100th anniversary celebration of George Balanchine's birth. Carolina Ballet presented two weeks of ballets from Balanchine's vast repertory including Apollo, The Four Temperaments, Prodigal Son and La Sonnambula, and in the spring Carolina Ballet presented Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The 2003-2004 season marked the launching of Carolina Ballet's education program Dancers in Schools. This program was made possible through support from GlaxoSmithKline, and it reached over 10,000 third, fourth and fifth graders in the public schools around the state, taking ballet into the classrooms to introduce the art form and to discuss the importance of exercise and good nutrition in young people's lives.
With the overwhelming success of Balanchine Celebration, Carolina Ballet opened its seventh season with Balanchine Masterworks: The Celebration Continues, for which Robert Weiss chose several of the favorite Balanchine ballets to reprise. For this tribute he also choreographed a new ballet, Symposium (The Masks of Dionysos) as homage to his mentor George Balanchine. The News & Observer said of Symposium, "the ballet is lovely, moving and perfectly matched to the music" and called the new ballet "one of Weiss' best creations." Francis Mason said on WQXR-FM (the radio station of the New York Times) of Symposium, Weiss is "making the Balanchine legacy live with new work like this."
Also during the 2004-2005 season, Carolina Ballet collaborated with The Red Clay Ramblers, the Tony Award-winning bluegrass string band from Chapel Hill on a production choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett called Carolina Jamboree. The season ended with a brand new Swan Lake choreographed by Robert Weiss. George Balanchine always said that if you name every ballet Swan Lake, people will come. This was the case for Carolina Ballet's new Swan Lake; the production was a sellout. Weiss' Swan Lake was inspired by a children's book by Austrian writer and illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger in which the Swan Princess has only eight friends, making it possible to tell the story with fewer dancers.
The 2005-2006 season featured eight premieres: five choreographed by Weiss and the others by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Tyler Walters, and Timour Bourtasenkov. In February, Carolina Ballet presented Shakespeare Suite, with Weiss' new Tempest Fantasy to the Pulitzer Prize-winning score by Paul Moravec and Love Speaks choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Jose Limon's The Moor's Pavane was also on this program. In the spring, as an Easter celebration, Carolina Ballet presented four new works to spiritual music: Ipse Dixit by Tyler Walters, Vivaldi's Gloria by Timour Bourtasenkov and Poulenc's Gloria by Weiss. The fourth new work was a pas de deux choreographed by Weiss to music by J. Mark Scearce, Endymion's Sleep. The season ended with a brand new Cinderella to music by Karl Moraski. The New Republic said of Weiss' Cinderella it was "beautifully wrought." The News & Observer said, "its artistic achievement sets it apart: choreography fitted perfectly to each moment and each dancer."
September 2006 marked another milestone for Carolina Ballet as the company embarked on a three week, seven city tour of the People's Republic of China, where it presented eleven performances of Swan Lake. The trip was a huge success, and Carolina Ballet was very proud to be representing the state of North Carolina in the Far East. While in China, Robert Weiss became intrigued by the music of the Guzheng, an ancient stringed instrument, and was inspired to choreograph a ballet called Choreocalligraphy to the unique sounding music with new choreography by Weiss, ballet master Marin Boieru, and dancer Attila Bongar. Guzheng musician Jennifer Chang accompanied the ballets.
Second only to the tour to China, the highlight of Carolina Ballet's ninth season was Monet Impressions, in collaboration with the North Carolina Museum of Art. Carolina Ballet presented a new program inspired by the paintings of Claude Monet which were being exhibited at the museum. Lynne Taylor-Corbett selected Monet's scenic painting "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" to bring to life for her ballet Picnic on the Grass, and Weiss selected several of Monet's more abstract paintings of water lilies, irises and roses for his ballet The Gardens of Giverny. Raleigh native and Tony Award winner William Ivey Long created the costumes for Picnic on the Grass and David Heuvel designed the costumes for The Gardens of Giverny. Roy Dicks wrote in his review for Pointe Magazine, "the program was a crowd-pleaser in the best sense. These were truly beautiful ballets, visually resplendent and imaginatively conceived."
During the 2006-2007 season Carolina Ballet joined with the North Carolina Dance Theatre, Opera Carolina, and Piedmont Opera in a program called cARTwheels, a statewide educational initiative sponsored by the NC Department of Cultural Resources. On six occasions, Carolina Ballet presented a shortened version of Swan Lake attended by nearly 11,000 students from 21 counties around the state.
In the summer of 2007 Carolina Ballet hosted its first Summer Intensive for young dancers (under the direction of Tyler and Julie Janus Walters) at the campus of UNC Wilmington on the coast of North Carolina. Ballet students from around the country attended for five weeks, culminating in a gala performance featuring ballets choreographed on the young dancers. For three weeks Carolina Ballet’s dancers were also in residence on the campus, and during this time Robert Weiss choreographed a new ballet, The Waltzes of Old Vienna, to the music of Johann Strauss II for the upcoming season.
Highlights of the 2007-2008 tenth anniversary season included several premieres by Robert Weiss, which included Peter and the Wolf (choreographed for the cARTwheels program), Oblique Dreamscapes (to Stravinsky’s Concerto for two Pianos), Adagio (a pas de deux to music of Tomaso Albinoni), and The Waltzes of Old Vienna in the spring. A Balanchine program included the company and Raleigh premiere of Raymonda Variations, and the company reprised Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Cabaret, Café Marcovicci with Andrea Marcovicci singing once again for the dancers. The season ended with Robert Weiss’ triumphant, all-new Sleeping Beauty with the original Petipa choreography along with additional new choreography by Weiss.
Carolina Ballet returned to Wilmington in summer 2008 for its second Summer Intensive that brought an increase in the number of dance students to the UNC Wilmington campus. Once again the professional dancers were in residence, and Lynne Taylor-Corbett was on board to choreograph a new ballet for the upcoming season, Code of Silence, to music of Arvo Part. Robert Weiss also choreographed a new ballet to Paul Moravec’s Time Gallery during the three week summer residency, and principal dancer Timour Bourtasenkov created a new ballet, Dances for Piano & Violin, to music of Tchaikovsky. All of these ballets were featured on the opening program of the 2008-2009 season to great critical acclaim, with the News and Observer calling Code of Silence “nothing short of a masterpiece.”
Two major highlights of the 2008-2009 season were Robert Weiss’ new Don Quixote presented with support from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, which was hosting an exhibit “El Greco to Velasquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III,” and Carolina Ballet’s first presentation of a ballet by Jerome Robbins, Fancy Free. At this point in its history, Carolina Ballet was amassing a sizeable repertory of its own to pull from, and the company showcased reprises of Tempest Fantasy, The Kreutzer Sonata, Messiah, Symposium and Coppelia, along with an evening of favorites by George Balanchine. The season ended with two more premieres – Serenata to music of Dvorak; and Beauty and the Beast with a commissioned score by Karl Moraski.
The downturn in the economy unfortunately ended Carolina Ballet’s relationship with UNC Wilmington, so there was no summer intensive for the summer of 2009. Not to be deterred, Executive Director Lisa Jones and Tyler Walters went to work immediately to find a new location for the following summer. A partnership with Raleigh’s historic Saint Mary’s School was formed, and over the 2009-2010 season all the pieces were put into place for the opening of the Ruth S. Shur Summer Intensive for the summer of 2010.
In the meantime Carolina Ballet’s 12th season was a season of the story ballet and a second program in partnership with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. This time the museum was presenting an exhibit called “Picasso and the Allure of Language.” Robert Weiss asked J. Mark Scearce, chair of the music department at NCSU, to compose music for two ballets on the program – The Song of the Dead, choreographed by Weiss and Guernica, choreographed by Attila Bongar. Weiss choreographed two other ballets on the program, Salome and Picasso’s Harlequins, to music of Richard Strauss and Erik Satie respectively. All four of the ballets were inspired by works of Picasso in the exhibit.
For the other programs of the 2009-2010 season Robert Weiss brought back Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Messiah (the greatest story ever told) and presented the Raleigh and company premiere of Auguste Bournonville’s La Sylphide, considered by many to be the first great romantic story ballet. Carolina Ballet borrowed the La Sylphide production from Boston Ballet, and it was received with great enthusiasm by the audience and the critics. On the La Sylphide program was another premiere by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Nine by Twelve, to music by Bach. In April 2010, the North Carolina Museum of Art opened its new building, and Robert Weiss was invited to choreograph a short ballet - Moving Life to music of Erik Satie - for the opening weekend at the Museum.
During the summer of 2010, the Ruth S. Shur Summer Intensive was officially kicked off at Saint Mary’s School with great enthusiasm from both the students and Carolina Ballet. Again the professional dancers were in residence for three weeks while Robert Weiss and Lynne Taylor-Corbett each choreographed a ballet for the upcoming fall Dracula program with specially commissioned music by J. Mark Scearce. Weiss chose Edgar Allen Poe’s dark story The Masque of the Red Death to go opposite Taylor-Corbett’s Dracula on an evening of the macabre for the weeks leading up to Halloween. Also during the fall, Carolina Ballet premiered Bruce Wells’ (of Pacific Northwest Ballet) Pinocchio for a family series event over Thanksgiving weekend. Later in the season Weiss choreographed a romantic ballet on the company to Grieg’s Piano Concerto.
The remainder of the 2010-2011 season was again made up of favorite ballets from Carolina Ballet’s extensive repertory – Firebird, The Ugly Duckling, Carmen, Monet Impressions (during the tornado that hit Raleigh) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On the Firebird program, Weiss premiered several short ballets: Sturmische Lieber, a pas de deux to music of Gustave Mahler; and Walpurgishnacht by dancer Timour Bourtasenkov to the music of Charles Francois-Gernoud. At the end of the season Robert Weiss was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree in the Arts from North Carolina State University.
From 2001 until 2010, Carolina Ballet had presented Robert Weiss’ Nutcracker for an average of 20 performances each year in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium and in Chapel Hill at Memorial Hall. While attendance was strong throughout those years, Weiss felt it should be better; after all this was Nutcracker, the annual Christmas tradition in every major city across America. After giving it much thought for over a year, he came up with the idea of designing new scenery and enhancing the Party Scene (Act I) with real magic tricks built for Carolina Ballet by one of Las Vegas’ top-rated magicians, Rick Thomas. Weiss and the Drosselmeyers – Marin Boieru and Dameon Nagel – traveled to Las Vegas during the fall 2011 to work with Thomas and learn how to seamlessly pull off the tricks.
The first show was early December in Memorial Hall on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill and as the News & Observer put it, “the gasps after each eye popping illusion, the applause for the handsome new sets and the rapt attention from all the children confirmed the changes were worth it.” Not only was the show spectacular, but Carolina Ballet performed Nutcracker for the first time at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) to a very enthusiastic audience.
One would think that producing a new Nutcracker would have been all-consuming, but the remainder of the 2011-2012 season had to go on as well. After all the buzz regarding Natalie Portman winning the Oscar for the motion picture Black Swan, Robert Weiss opened the 14th season with a program showcasing the original choreography for the Black and White Swan pas de deux from Petipa’s Swan Lake. There were several other highlights which included a new The Little Mermaid by Lynne Taylor-Corbett with specially commissioned score by Michael Moricz; The Calder Project – three ballets inspired by the work of Alexander Calder sponsored by the Nasher Museum; and a wonderful evening of Balanchine ballets rarely seen anymore – the Glinka Pas deTrois, Minkus Pas de Trois and A La Francaix. These ballets were staged by Marina Eglevsky, the daughter of the great dancer Andre Eglevsky, on whom the ballets were choreographed. The season ended with another tour de force by Robert Weiss to Beethoven’s masterpiece Ninth Symphony.
During the summer, after the third Summer Intensive with Saint Mary’s School, Carolina Ballet was invited to participate in the Appalachian Summer Festival on the campus of Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. Robert Weiss presented several pas de deux and gave the dancers another opportunity to perform his spectacular Beethoven: Symphony No. 9.
*Raleigh Dance Theatre, Inc. was founded in 1984. by Ann Vorus, owner of the Raleigh School of Ballet. After several years, this pre-professional student company was reorganized as Carolina Ballet, Inc. and was led by Ms. Vorus’ successor, Mary LeGere. In the fall of 1993, Raleigh lawyer Ward Purrington suggested to the board of Carolina Ballet that they found a professional ballet company on the highest level.