Carolina Ballet’s long-time artistic director Robert Weiss says he came up with the idea for his latest ballet on a trip to Prague. He had never been there before, and neither had his wife, Melissa Podcasy, ballet master with the company.
But the spur-of-the-moment trip, and a visit to an art museum there, proved to be pivotal for Weiss. A piece of art seen at the museum became the inspiration for a new dance Weiss choreographed for his company.
The piece, “Love in the Times of the Day,” will be have its world premiere Jan. 31 through Feb. 17 at Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh.
The piece’s origins stirred in late 2017, when friend and composer J. Mark Scearce sent him a text from Prague. Scearce teaches at N.C. State’s Design School but was in the Czech Republic to help expand the university’s study abroad program there. He wrote he was leaving soon, and the couple had better come quickly if they were going to take advantage of his offer of a free apartment and him as a guide.
The couple had a week off in October 2017, when company dancers were on a break.
“We had been saying for the whole time that he had been over there, for almost two years, we really need to visit Mark in Prague,” Weiss said in a recent interview at the Carolina Ballet’s studios. “Within two weeks, we booked it. We had frequent-flier miles. We got it all arranged and we left.”
When Weiss and his wife arrived in Prague, Scearce told them they should go to the Mucha Museum to see the work of Czech painter, illustrator and graphic artist Alfonse Mucha. Mucha lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and spent much of his career in Paris as a magazine, theatrical and advertising illustrator. At one point, he shared a studio with French painter Paul Gauguin, and he became friends with the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg.
Mucha is known especially for his highly stylized Art Nouveau theatrical posters he created of actress Sarah Bernhardt. He became famous for these posters that were plastered all over Paris. The Czech artist also created decorative panels, including “The Times of the Day,” a piece that so captivated Weiss, he decided to make a ballet out of it.
The panel, made in 1899, is much like Mucha’s other works. It features beautiful women with swirling hair in arabesque patterns. One important design element in Art Nouveau, in fact, are curves so sudden they can can seem like a whip cracking, known as the “whiplash” effect.
Eventually, Mucha moved back to what was then Czechoslovakia, to Prague in fact, to work on his historical paintings he so prized.
The first time Weiss saw Mucha’s work, though, was when he arrived in North Carolina in the late 1990s, and then-N.C. Museum of Art director Larry Wheeler had organized an exhibit of Mucha’s works.
“It was a painter I didn’t know, and I was fascinated,” Weiss said. “It was one of the things that got me acclimated to living in North Carolina.”
Having come from New York City, Weiss said, he then realized the state did, indeed, have culture.
In Prague, though, he was attracted to how Mucha had depicted women posing at various times of the day: dawn, midday, twilight and night. Although many composers have done pieces based on the four seasons, Weiss said, from what he and Scearce knew, no one had set one to the times of the day in music — or dance. So, a plan was hatched.
Weiss said he didn’t have enough money for a ballet with a symphony, so he decided on music for piano. Concert pianist William Wolfram, the father of Lauren Wolfram, a company ballerina, will perform the piece at the upcoming ballet.
Within a month, Scearce, who had worked before with Weiss, had written the score, and he and Weiss began to collaborate on the new ballet, renamed “Love in the Times of the Day,” for Valentine’s Day. Scearce, in a phone interview, described the music he composed.
“More than anything, I think, it’s Paris of the time. It’s La Belle Époque, the ‘beautiful era,’” he said.
Scearce said Weiss provides him with the timing, the piece’s emotional character and number of dancers.
Weiss said he finished the 54-minute dance just this month.
“I’m really excited how it turned out,” he said.
The music, Scearce added, encompasses asymmetry, syncopation (or off-the-beat or “ragged” rhythm) and a sense of a curved line.
“The foundations of jazz happened during Art Nouveau,” Scearce said, “so jazz also has to be a part of this.”
The last dance in the twilight section, he said, has everyone drinking and dancing merrily with the band cutting loose.
“That was a challenge,” Scearce acknowledged. “I felt ragtime could have been danced at the Moulin Rouge. … So, I wrote the craziest ragtime you could imagine.”
As for seeing his music embodied in dancers’ movements, Scearce said, “That is why I come back to dance over and over and over again.”
Principal ballerina Lara O’Brien will perform in the Twilight section. She has been with the company for more than 18 years and recently turned 37.
At rehearsal, O’Brien is wearing leg warmers, a leotard and a pink skirt. She has pulled her long, dark hair into a ponytail. As she and Yevgeny Shlapko practice under the watchful eyes of Podcasy and ballet artist Pablo Javier Perez, it’s easy to see the minute details and adjustments that come with embodying and performing a new ballet.
Angles should be considered, the spatial geometry relating to what the audience will see later. There’s the timing and the need to stay in balance — how to scissor a leg during a lift, how best to count the beat, how to make it all look perfectly seamless. Figuring out the exact nature of each movement is a small challenge.
“Sorry, sorry,” the two dancers repeat to one another, as well as their coaches.
O’Brien described the music for her part as “spunky” and said Weiss’ ballets require stamina. By the end of their pas de deux, she confesses that she and Shlapko are pretty tired.
As for choreographing such a ballet, Weiss said, “I really have found the older I’ve gotten, the easier it has become. I don’t feel I have that much to prove anymore. Since he launched the professional ocmpany in 1997, he has choreographed more than 60 works.
When he books three hours of rehearsal time in the studio with his dancers and ideas don’t come to him, he said, he doesn’t force it.
“If it can’t happen, I stop. It has to flow.”
Yet, what’s important in creating this latest ballet, Weiss said, “is having this wonderful music to inspire me.”
“There’s nothing like having a commissioned score,” he said. “It’s like two minds become one mind. You create the work together.”
In the case of “Love in the Times of the Day,” Weiss found inspiration in the mind of another creative — an artist and his painting. But he doesn’t like to pinpoint where his ideas come from.
“It comes from a higher power,” he said. “And it comes through us.”
What: Carolina Ballet presents “Love in the Times of the Day” and “Time Gallery”
When: Jan. 31 to Feb. 17, 11 performances
Where: Fletcher Opera Theater, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Cost: Tickets start at $34.15.
Info: 919-719-0900 or go to carolinaballet.com