By Lawrence Toppman
Soaring was the main activity of the opening weekend of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. Literally so in exuberant performances by Miami City Ballet and metaphorically so in “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” a captivating play about the loving, tempestuous marriage of painter Marc Chagall and writer Bella Rosenfeld.
Kneehigh Theatre has come from its Cornwall, England, home to Charleston four times in 12 years. If you’ve seen “The Red Shoes” or “Tristan & Yseult,” you know what to expect from “Vitebsk:” a total-theater piece with song, dance, drama, circus skills, even mime. Versatile Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood, who looked eerily like the Chagalls, played not only the couple but all the smaller parts.
Their story is a microcosm of Eastern European history from the early 1900s to World War II: pogroms against Jews by the tsar, Marc’s travels to study in Paris and Berlin, his return to Russia for World War I, persecution by the Bolsheviks, artistic freedom and productivity in France, the destruction of Vitebsk and most of Belarus by the Nazis, eventually an escape to America. The story ends with her death from a viral infection in 1944, though she reappears as a sweetly comical angel.
The play at Dock Street Theatre has undergone a 25-year transmigration, from the time author Daniel Jamieson wrote it as “Birthday” and starred in it with Emma Rice. (She directed the current production, done in partnership with Bristol Old Vic.)
It retains a zany wildness while exploring serious issues: Marc and Bella might stomp about with a papier-mache fish and cockerel on their heads, singing a tune in Yiddish, then fall into a discussion about the artist’s responsibilities to his family and the world. He blithely clings to ideals about the transformative power of art while government thugs smash the windows of her family’s jewelry store, and he doesn’t take notice of his daughter until she’s four days old. (“Have you named her yet?” he asks with wistful embarrassment.)
Rice keeps the show surging forward through 90 intermission-free minutes, as multi-instrumentalists James Gow and Ian Ross sing and play anything from a cello to an accordion. By the end, our sympathies are evenly divided between pragmatic Bella and dreamy Marc, who outlived his first love by four decades and produced masterpieces in every one.
The play runs through June 10, the last day of the festival. The ballet, alas, stayed only through the opening weekend. (There’s still lots of good dance, up to “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures/NEW BODIES” on the last day; it offers three New York City Ballet dancers, including Columbia native Sara Mearns, in works by Trisha Brown and Jodi Melnick.)
Nineteen years have passed since I saw Miami City Ballet on its second visit to Spoleto. Edward Villella, who founded the company in 1985 and ran it until 2012, brought in a talented troupe that specialized then in the work of George Balanchine and aspired to greatness.
The company that danced this year under artistic director Lourdes Lopez has achieved it. I recently saw back-to-back performances at American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, Balanchine’s former company. Miami can stand alongside those two great troupes, based on the evidence at Gaillard Auditorium.
The corps in Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht,” an elegant piece set to the mostly insipid ballet music from Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” moved as if one body and filled every gesture with meaning. Jennifer Lauren and Chase Swatosh told a complete story in seven minutes in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Carousel Pas de Deux,” she as a tomboyish Julie discovering yearnings she didn’t know she had and he as a brash Billy discovering tenderness he didn’t know he had.
MacMillan won a Tony for choreographing that 1994 Rodgers and Hammerstein revival, and many people think Justin Peck will get one this year for the new production. Spoleto audiences saw Peck’s “Heatscape,” bursts of perfectly executed energy that didn’t amount to a great deal. The concert’s highlight came from Alexei Ratmansky: “Concerto DSCH,” set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. It spoofed Soviet ballets about the glorious future of the USSR while incorporating poignant and romantic episodes.
Dignified, expressive Simone Messmer stood out in the slow movement. Messmer danced for more than 12 seasons at American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet before moving to Miami in 2015. Two decades ago, that would have been a step down from the summit. It isn’t any more.
To learn more about the performances at this year’s festival, visit Spoleto Festival USA.