Honor, valor, love, betrayal — these are the thematic elements of Cincinnati Ballet artistic director and CEO Victoria Morgan’s full-length world premiere, King Arthur’s Camelot, opening this weekend with five performances at the Aronoff Center. As the centerpiece of Cincinnati Ballet’s 50th anniversary season, the production, with a cast of 38, is also significant in that it’s been 20 years since an original full-length ballet (new libretto, score, sets, costumes, etc.) has been commissioned and presented by the company.
“A few years ago, my friend and Cincinnati Ballet supporter Rhonda Sheakley and I were talking about the upcoming 50th,” Morgan says. Sheakley suggested using the legendary tale in which King Arthur unites his kingdom with honor and brotherhood, only to see it fall into chaos after his wife Guinevere and the knight Lancelot betray him.
“My initial gut reaction, since I love working with pas de deux [“a dance for two”], was how intriguing the possibilities were,” she says. Morgan thought the story a little quaint but upon deliberation found enough breadth to suggest issues still current in our time, such as the consideration of whether “might for right” is ever acceptable.
And so she employed another longtime friend, Eda Holmes, who has a strong background in theater (she currently directs for The Shaw Festival Theatre in Ontario and others) and dance (formerly with San Francisco Ballet), to help her create a two-act libretto.
After an exhaustive search, on Holmes’ suggestion, she settled on Canadian composer John Estacio for the ballet’s score, to be played live by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO).
“We sent him the libretto,” Morgan says. “He mailed back a CD with a digitalized, full orchestral idea of the wedding pas de deux. It was crazy perfect — innocent, hopeful, romantic, lovely. I told our chief operating officer Missie Santomo, who was negotiating the contract, that I didn’t know what it was gonna take, but this guy was the one. We had to use him.”
Also on board for this project are resident lighting designer Trad A Burns and Joe Tilford, a set designer locally known for his work with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; Sandra Woodall, a costume designer whose work has been seen here and in ballet companies like San Francisco Ballet and the Bolshoi; Eric Van Wyk, an award-winning young puppet designer who created the butterfly and horses for Camelot; and projection designer John Boesche, who has designed for more than 120 professional productions.
“Certainly, this is a big, substantial work,” says music director Carmon DeLeone, who will conduct the CSO during performances.
“John Estacio is a top-notch professional composer of the first rank, and we are lucky to have him do this. Each character has a unique musical motif. The arc of the piece is one of beginning, ending, tragedy in between and hope for the future. Sometimes it’s very dramatic and theatrical, and at other times it’s lighter.”
“It’s a huge ballet,” says artistic associate Johanna Bernstein Wilt. “It’s wonderful for this company because it requires so many different character types. And that’s exactly what we have in our dancers.”
Senior soloist Rodrigo Almarales, known for his agile technique, plays Mordred, the knight who is the son of the Ladies of the Lake. He’s pretty much the villain.
“My function is to unbalance the equation,” he says. “The magician Merlin is a good power. In my movement, I’m like a spider or reptile, a really creepy thing.” Amarales actually had coaching in Hip Hop to help the fluidity of his moves.
“Arthur is good,” he continues, “but I try to undo that by convincing him to do things he wouldn’t normally do. I want power — I want what the King has and more.”
Almarales has found he enjoys playing his first evil character. “Acting comes easily for me,” he says. “When I get into character, I am blinded. Even in the wings, getting ready to go on, I get goose bumps. I don’t see the actual people I’m dancing with. I only see characters.”
Senior soloist Patric Palkens plays Lancelot. “I’m a friend of Arthur and a noble knight,” he says. “The relationship I have with him in the ballet is a familiar one, in the sense that both knights are friends, yet there is a bit of friendly competition. It’s close to home, because dancers have a lot of that. In the first act, my character shows off to such an extent that the other knights get in a fight with him.”
It’s a physically challenging dance for Palkens, but especially when he has to switch gears from dancing to fighting. “It brings a different challenge,” he says. “The guys I fight with are physically bigger than I am, so I not only have to do my own dancing, but I also have to throw them around.”
Another challenge is dancing with Guinevere. “We had to learn not to dance our pas de deux so happily, as in a normal ballet,” Palkens says. “When we finally make contact and embrace for the first time, we are also anguished, knowing what our actions are going to cost.”
Principals Adiarys Almeida and Joseph Gatti, former Cincinnati Ballet dancers who now tour the world together as highly regarded guest artists, dance King Arthur and Guinevere.
“Two years ago we were in town teaching,” Almeida says, “and Victoria told us about a big upcoming production and asked us to keep in touch. We did, and signed last year to guest. We’ve been here three months working on King Arthur’s Camelot.”
“Guinevere is a young girl,” she says, “and even though she’s married, she doesn’t know what real love is until she meets Lancelot. They both love Arthur, but they can’t help falling for each other. It has to feel good, but painful.”
“You have to find your way into a dramatic ballet like this,” Gatti says. “The steps can help with things, but it’s the way you tilt your head, the way you put feeling and emotion into the movement. Without emotion, it’s just steps.”
Cincinnati Ballet presents KING ARTHUR’S CAMELOT Thursday-Sunday. Casting varies with performances. Find tickets and showtimes at cballet.org.