In a large, light-filled studio at Atlanta Ballet’s complex on the Westside, dancers are rehearsing over and over again one section of choreographer David Bintley’s “Carmina Burana.” Bintley wants them to be tougher, slouchier. He demonstrates; they watch intently. Just react, he urges. Drop the classical poses. This, after all, is not “Swan Lake.” It’s a contemporary ballet about young people rejecting the spiritual life and exploring sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Seventeen years after its world premiere by England’s Birmingham Royal Ballet, Bintley’s highly theatrical “Carmina Burana” will have its North American premiere April 12-14 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. It will share the Atlanta Ballet program with resident choreographer Helen Pickett’s “Petal,” which ArtsATL described as “lushly hued [and] sensually inventive” when it was first staged in 2011.
In the ballet “Carmina Burana,” perhaps more than most, the score is the thing. Composer Carl Orff’s powerful cantata for full orchestra, two choirs and soloists is one of the best-known pieces of 20th-century classical music. The opening, “O Fortuna,” has been used in TV commercials, sitcoms, talk shows and movies — and at all the Pittsburgh Pirates’ home games. This month’s production will feature the full Atlanta Ballet Orchestra and the Georgia State University Singers, a 49-member choral ensemble.
Orff was inspired by a collection of medieval poems written, it is thought, by irreverent monks or students leaving the seminary for secular life. He used 24 of the more than 250 poems, which cover a wide range of subjects, from the joys of spring to the pleasures and perils of drinking, gambling and lust.
The score’s inherent drama has also inspired a slew of choreographers, starting with the little-known Lizzie Maudrik, who created a “Carmina” for the Berlin Opera Ballet in 1941. The first American version was John Butler’s choreography in 1959 for the New York City Opera. Since then, dozens of American ballet companies have created their own versions.
Atlanta Ballet has performed Canadian Fernand Nault’s “Carmina” several times, most recently in 2007. That work opens with rows of robed and hooded monks executing a series of deep and ponderous genuflections. Bintley’s version opens with one female dancer wearing high heels, a black minidress and a blindfold. She is Fortuna, the goddess of destiny. Her solo is angular, spikey and very secular. She sets the tone for what Bintley describes as “an adult comic.” The two ballets could not be more different.
Widely recognized as one of Britain’s most innovative choreographers, Bintley first came across Orff’s music as a teenager. It wasn’t until he became artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1995, however, that he had the opportunity to choreograph it. It was an instant hit, although one local pastor and a conservative politician — neither of whom actually saw it, Bintley says — had a few words to say about its irreverence and unabashed hedonism.
Bintley imagined the ballet’s action as taking place in a single night – “a lurid nightmare” in which three young men leave the seminary and experience life on the outside. The first falls in love but soon discovers that “pretty blond girls stamp on your heart.” The second goes for drinking and gluttony and in the end “gets kicked to bits.” The third, in the section titled “Sick With Love,” is looking for a relationship in the wrong place. “He thinks he’s found the Virgin Mary only to find out that she’s the Whore of Babylon,” Bintley says.
While the ballet revels in several of the deadly sins, Bintley says that it’s ultimately a morality tale. “The young men all reject the spiritual life and get their comeuppance,” he says. “It’s fun, but there is a dark heart to it, and when the bleeding crosses come in at the end, you know the young men are in hell.”
Bintley and veteran designer Philip Prowse, whose sets and costumes are as dramatic as the score itself, decided to marry three different time periods: the 12th century of the original poems; 1930s Germany, where Orff was an approved composer of the Third Reich; and the youth revolution of the 1960s. “We wanted to make the concerns of each of those societies understandable to a modern audience,” Bintley explains.
He created movement that reflects these distinct societies: medieval-inspired frolicking with maidens on the village green, the group-exercise aesthetic of the Hitler Youth movement, and the ’60s counterculture, complete with a few Elvis moves and a rude finger or two. All of it coalesces into a visually stunning, technically demanding and choreographically complex drama that had a huge impact on Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall when he first saw it in 1997.
It was exhilarating, he remembers, and he loved its narrative structure. “It’s full of humanity and chock to the brim with vulnerability,” McFall says. “It’s about living. It’s universal. It tugs at you.” Over the years, McFall repeatedly asked Bintley to stage it with Atlanta Ballet. Finally, thanks to McFall’s tenacity and his company’s enhanced technique and stylistic versatility, the time was right.
Bintley uses words such as “crazy,” “odd” and “strange” to describe the ballet, and you get the feeling that he has moved away from its aesthetic in the intervening years. These days, he says, he is most inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and traditional fairy tales. When we meet, he is reading a book about Shakespeare and thinking about creating a full-length ballet based on “The Tempest.”
But fairy stories and the Bard’s plays may not be that far removed from Bintley’s “Carmina Burana” after all. “It’s the dark heart that interests me,” he says. That, and the moral of the story.
Head over to ArtsATL’s Facebook page to find out what choreographer David Bintley insists upon during his ballet rehearsals.