RALEIGH — At Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art, the exhibition "Picasso and the Allure of Language" demonstrates the artist's wide-ranging styles and subjects. In collaboration with the museum, Carolina Ballet has its own exhibition -- four ballets inspired by Picasso images, aptly reflecting the artist's variety.
The program opens with "Salome," based on Picasso's delicate print depicting Salome's dance before Herod and his wife. Picasso's Salome has an innocence and naïveté that Robert Weiss' choreography captures well, evocatively danced by Randi Osetek to music from Richard Strauss' opera. Attila Bongar as a younger, more aggressive Herod, and Eugene Barnes as Salome's adoring slave, interact sensuously with Osetek, to the consternation of Rossana Nesta Gahagan's Herodias.
David Heuval's exotic costumes and Ross Kolman's burnished lighting add visual splendor to this provocative piece.
Bongar is choreographer for "Guernica," prompted by Picasso's gripping 1937 response to the Spanish Civil War. Against Jeff A. R. Jones' geometrical impression of the painting, Lara O'Brien writhes and reaches out in lonely desperation. Five solemn male figures menacingly confine her in strenuously athletic configurations. Her final solo of agonized defeat is fiercely virtuosic, enhanced by J. Mark Scearce's appropriately bleak piano score.
A lighthearted contrast comes with Weiss' "Picasso's Harlequins," inspired by the commedia dell'arte figures in the artist's works. To highly rhythmic music by Satie, Gabor Kapin (Harlequin), Margaret Severin-Hansen (Columbine), Pablo Javier Perez (Pierrot) and Erica Sabatini (Pierrette), pertly bounce and spin, flirt and fight, Heuval's brightly colored commedia costumes adding to the fun. The balance tips from cute to cutesy, however, when the corps of toy soldiers wiggle and cavort to no particular end.
Weiss' most impressive work comes with "The Song of the Dead," based on impressionistic poems by Pierre Reverdy, written in 1945 as mediations on human mortality. Picasso illustrated the pages with blood-red brush strokes, which Heuval replicates on his costumes for Timor Bourtasenkov and Melissa Podcasy. The two appear as spirits, touching each of six couples dancing in unemotional formality, bringing them consciousness of their hopes and fears.
The dancers proceed to exemplify sorrow, loss, and bitterness, along with yearnings for freedom and rest. Weiss conveys these moments with subtly controlled simplicity and precisely placed gestures, maintaining a moving melancholy throughout.
Scearce contributes one his best scores, a trio for piano, clarinet and violin that ranges arrestingly from turbulent to wistful to hymnlike. Heuval's striking costumes in tans and browns, detailed with fragments of writing, glow under Kolman's autumnal hues.
The audience Thursday responded most strongly to the darkest works, proving that ballet can explore all areas of art and humanity.