It would be strange not to have an orchestra behind the soloist at a symphony concert or no musicians in the pit at an opera, but many ballet companies have been forced to replace live music with recordings.
From its first performances in 1998, Carolina Ballet had live music. But hiring musicians, including the N.C. Symphony and various pick-up orchestras, left the company with a $500,000 deficit after its first five seasons, forcing the use of recorded music for most productions thereafter.
When artistic director Robert Weiss first staged “Sleeping Beauty” in 2008, Tchaikovsky’s lavish, vibrant score was heard via compact disc. The same was true for the 2010 re-mounting, but Weiss was determined to have an orchestra for the current revival, which opens Thursday at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium.
That goal became reality when the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, a professional Durham-based ensemble, contacted Carolina Ballet last year seeking performance opportunities beyond the group’s regular season. Weiss jumped at the chance to use the 32-piece orchestra and the two organizations worked to secure additional funding to cover this weekend’s performances.
“Sleeping Beauty” is Carolina Ballet’s first regular-season program in almost a decade to have an orchestra (the annual moneymaker, “Nutcracker,” has had live music since its 2001 debut).
“It’s one of the greatest ballet scores ever,” Weiss said. “It’s respected as great music by itself, not just as accompaniment for dance. But you never get to hear the full score in a symphony concert.”
Weiss points out that live music is important to ballet because of the palpable impact on both audience and dancers.
“When the music is live, the dancers have a greater response to it and give more to the audience,” he said.
Principal dancers Jan Burkhard and Richard Krusch, one pair starring as Sleeping Beauty and the Prince this weekend, agree that live music inspired them in previous roles danced to full orchestras.
“When I was learning the young daughter in ‘Carmina Burana,’ I knew what the character was supposed to be going through when she finds out they are going to kill the man she loves,” Burkhard recalled during a break in rehearsals. “But when I first heard the live music, it really made me feel the part and I wasn’t uncomfortable with the extremely emotional gestures.”
Krusch says live music enhances the whole experience.
“Even before the show starts, there is an extra vibe in the air because the dancers can hear the musicians tuning up,” he said. “It gives us an extra energy.”
Both dancers also acknowledge the importance of a conductor.
“Some days you feel energetic and some days it takes a little more time to do things,” Krusch said. “The conductor has eye contact with you and can stretch out a moment or wait for you to be ready.”
Burkhard emphasizes that having the same conductor each time makes a big difference, praising the company’s regular conductor, Alfred E. Sturgis, for his flexibility and understanding.
“When I do the Butterfly solo in ‘Nutcracker,’ Al breathes with me at the start and almost dances it with me,” she said.
Sturgis, who has been conducting for the company since 1999, notes the other side of the coin.
“Maintaining a consistent tempo is most important,” he said. “Otherwise, the dancers may be put in the position of being unable to manage the steps. It’s difficult but I work at it a lot, checking my score notes before each performance.” Sturgis also applies these skills to performances that use small ensembles such as double pianos or a string quartet.
Sturgis looks forward to adding the third great Tchaikovsky ballet (after “Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake”) to his repertoire for Carolina Ballet.
“‘Sleeping Beauty’ is his lushest score and tells the story so beautifully,” he said.
Weiss hopes audiences will appreciate the impact of live music in “Sleeping Beauty” enough to help bring the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle back for more performances next season, which includes “Swan Lake.” He minces no words about his opinion of performing such great works to a recording.
“It’s just a crime.”