There were close, poignant character studies and moving restagings of George Balanchine’s work; imaginative new choreography enhanced by equally imaginative set and costume design; and don’t forget the glitz.

Carolina Ballet closed its 2001-2002 season with a four-work manifesto that effectively summarized key strengths that have become company trademarks in its time. Who Cares?, Balanchine’s 1937 open love letter to George Gershwin’s Hollywood, dazzled, as an ensemble–including Lilyan Vigo and Alain Molina–tripped the light fantastic to Alfred Sturgis’ live orchestra. Decorum was then reestablished in Margaret Severin-Hansen and Pablo Javier Perez’s measured, crisp restaging of Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie.

But Melissa Podcasy’s affecting interpretation of Peter Martins’ 1985 Valse Triste took us well into the realm of finely detailed character work. Martins’ inspiration for the work was two sections from incidental music Jean Sibelius wrote for a 1903 Finnish stage play titled Kuolema (Death). It’s particularly fitting for a ballet that Kuolema was originally about the mythical totentanz, the dance that death ultimately engages us all in.

In Martins’ work, Sibelius’ dark lyricism is translated into a woman and a man’s individual ruminations on a relationship since ended–a dance of ashes, with the most ghostly of partners. Garbed appropriately in black, Podcasy is lifted at the work’s opening from an abject position on the floor, almost seemingly by memory alone. The intensity of her interpretation here recalls the late film noir work of Ida Lupino. Here she’s alone, but still unsafe from reminiscence. Such memories are sudden, and take her and us unawares, a fact reflected in choreography in which Timour Bourtasenkov, as the phantom of a former love, blindsides her, seizing her from behind repeatedly, supporting and thwarting her. Ultimately the two inhabit a negative space, one defined–as all who’ve ever loved and lost know too well–as the place where love no longer is.

The evening closed, appropriately for this company, with the new: a vivid, brisk, picture-book retelling of that world ballet classic, Firebird. Artistic director Robert Weiss keeps the truncated suite Igor Stravinsky composed for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, and the fabulous Russian folk tale about a mythic bird of fire who helps a merciful prince find true love and defeat an evil magician.

But his original choreography puts his imprimatur on this latest in a series of balletic revisionings, in large part by exploring his characters’ mythical dimensions. With Lilyan Vigo in the title role, Weiss creates a singularly uncanny character. Like the title character in Elizabeth Egloff’s eerie stage play The Swan, or Shakespeare’s Arial from The Tempest, our time with Vigo’s Firebird is another late encounter with the alien, a character that is simultaneously human, empathic and decidedly not of this world.

Mikhail Nikitine returned from the Miami City Ballet to give the role of Prince Ivan an athletic authority, while Isanusi Garcia dug into the Kastchei, the villainous magician, with apparent relish. Their efforts are decidedly enhanced by Jeff A. R. Jones’ fantasic, Persian-tinged sets and David Heuvel’s eye-popping costumes. Gabor Kapin and Christopher Rudd lead a phalanx of multicolored gargoyles and larger-than-life dragons, which Ivan must defeat to save his own life and win the hand of enchanted Princess Katarina. Weiss’ imaginary forest is populated by dancers Sarah Hollister, Lindsay Purrington and Emily Younger as a fox, deer and wolf who ultimately helps save the day.

An abrupt scene change follows the victory, as the prince and princess marry in a ceremony that suggests the pageantry of Eastern India, while the bird of flame is born aloft on a seemingly endless rope of pearls. Winged imagination, in short: a fitting image with which to close a season in which dancers and choreographers were found frequently just as airbound.

The artists in Choreo Collective take it outside this week when they help the Hillsborough Arts Council kick off their 2002 “Last Fridays” series of public performances and art exhibitions on the lawn of the Old Courthouse at the intersection of King and Church streets. According to co-founder Alyssa Ghirardelli, their current collaborations with guitarist Mike Bisdee have focused on ecology and interdependence.

“You have to have all of the parts to have a healthy ecosystem,” Ghirardelli notes. “Beyond a point, if things drop out of the web then it all disappears.” The dance group hits the lawn at 7 p.m. in a program with the Green River Band and a public school jump rope drill team, the Step Sations. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indy