People either fall in love with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (it’s easy when you’re young and never thought “classical” music could be so sexy), or look down on it as pseudo-medieval bombast. There’s no denying it stirs the blood; fierce orchestral ostinatos drive the soloists and chorus, who sing in Latin and German of burgeoning spring, debauchery, and courtly love.
Quite a few ballets have been fitted to Orff’s 1937 setting of poems written by renegade 13th-century monks. John Butler’s 1959 work for the New York City Opera, the most famous and most often staged, is the rightful centerpiece of the recent programs presented by the John Butler Foundation and danced by members of the Richmond Ballet.
Although Butler (1918–1993) choreographed for ballet companies, opera companies, and television, his roots were in modern dance. He trained with Martha Graham and danced briefly in her company. In Carmina, he sculpts the dancers’ bodies into designs to be hit almost percussively, and although a jealous female may dance on pointe, Graham might have approved of the way she contorts her torso and clutches herself. José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane comes to mind when four elegant-mannered lovers suffer jealousy and fight, yet still remain a quartet.
Butler may have drawn on a variety of styles, but his work has a distinctive look.
Small jerks, kinks, and hip wiggles punctuate the smooth flow. A dancer flicks his leg, and we see it as the start of an argument. The choreography plays imaginatively with traditional male-female scenarios: women as cantilevered figureheads, women draped over men, lovers nesting their bodies together. (I still remember a decades-ago Dance Magazine cover and the lusciously curving sculpture formed by two of Carmina‘s original leading dancers: Carmen de Lavallade and Glen Tetley.) Virtuosity and emotion battle for first place, and sometimes, happily, they unite, as in the lusty mating dance Butler created for the ensemble of 14 in the “In Taberna” section; the roistering men swing the women like the clappers of bells—up, down, and into their embrace—as if ringing in sensuality.
The steps sometimes fit Orff’s music almost too literally, but they rarely allude to the text. The score (heard in a recording) simply shapes the mood of the choreography and its architecture. When, against a backdrop lit fiery red by Richard Moore, Justin McMillan slithers adroitly into the diabolical solo that opens “In Taberna,” a baritone sings alone. A small choir accompanies two spring-in-bloom duets danced by Dana Carter, Valerie Tellmann, McMillan, and Igor Antonov. And when the full choir sings, Butler invariably brings on his ensemble of seven couples to celebrate life and love (with an occasional touch of pious guilt) in costumes (after designs by Butler) that range from black monks’ robes to strategically placed skimpy garlands (for the four solo dancers) and include handsome red or black semi-period outfits, plus peculiar ones suggesting partial nudity.
Butler’s choreography challenges dancers as well as shows them off. Tricky and expansive at the same time, it requires athleticism and delicacy, expressive punch and linear clarity. Sometimes the demands it places on the dancers are in conflict—how does one maintain a passionate impetus while stopping to prepare for a multiple pirouette? The Richmond Ballet performers throw themselves wholeheartedly and expertly into this restaging by Malcolm Burns (special coaching by de Lavallade can only have helped). Antonov is particularly fine; his dancing has a weight and juiciness that I miss in that of the two women, Carter and Tellmann.
Speaking of juiciness, Carmina was preceded in the Joyce programs by Butler’s Portrait of Billie, performed by two charismatic members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Asha Thomas as Billie Holiday in both her glory days and her disintegration, and Clifton Brown as her demanding demon lover. Thomas, faltering and staggering, conveys Holiday’s last tragic days, even as the broken voice, recorded decades ago, sings on.