Carolina Ballet mounts works by George Balanchine every season for good reason: the public needs reminders of the 20th century’s greatest choreographer and the dancers need challenges to perform at the highest level.
The company’s all-Balanchine program that opened its 16th season Thursday fulfilled both goals well, with an emphasis on humor and showmanship. Balanchine can be haunting, lyrical or joyous, but rarely funny.
One exception is “À La Françaix,” in which a young girl flirts with sailors at a seaport but then falls for a handsome dandy, who pursues her until a winged ballerina appears out of nowhere to spirit him away. The humor was never overdone, aided by the winning expressions and body language of Jan Burkhard’s perky flirt, Yevgeny Shlapko’s debonair dandy and Alicia Fabry’s otherworldly sylph. Eugene C. Barnes III and Adam Schiffer made exuberant sailors.
A gentler humor pervaded the charming “Steadfast Tin Soldier,” based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the toy soldier in love with a paper doll. The dancers’ mechanical movements and awkward wooing brought many a smile, particularly when Burkhard spun around with a flattened foot above her head and Pablo Javier Perez fell forward to kiss her hand.
Showmanship abounded in two other pieces.
The gypsy fantasy, “Rondo Alla Zingarese,” offers a lead pair backed by eight corps couples in a whirling blaze of steps. Marcelo Martinez impressed with series of seemingly weightless leaps with his legs tucked under him and Lara O’Brien entranced with sensuous turns and seductive spins.
In “Rubies,” sparkling red costumes added dazzle to the jazzy, high-speed moves by Margaret Severin-Hansen and Sokvannara Sar as they vigorously separated and re-connected, contrasted with O’Brien’s more lyrical, fluid solos. The spiky, percussive Stravinsky score was mirrored by the ever-surprising choreography.
The program opened with “Raymonda Variations,” Balanchine’s nod to more traditional choreography, in which seven soloists are each assigned a particularly difficult feat. Most of the dancers only just managed their variations and even leads Lilyan Vigo and Richard Krusch, while more secure in their technique, revealed the challenges that Balanchine set them. The performance lacked the extra layer of effortlessness and confidence required to make the piece thrilling.