Ballet in The Independent? Seems an oxymoron given the fringier focus of the Indy‘s arts lens. And until Carolina Ballet made its Triangle debut three years ago, I wouldn’t have paid much attention either. I had become a modern dance devotee over the 30-plus years of writing about democracy’s dance. Ballet, the aristocratic art form, was not even on my radar screen.

But this is ballet unlike most any other you might have seen or imagined. That’s because the company is under the keen, inventive direction of Robert Weiss, a principal dancer for George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for 17 years. But he’s no watered-down imitation the way David Parsons is to his mentor Paul Taylor. Weiss has his own vision and has pressed his distinctive footprint into the arts landscape here–from classic story ballets to modern dance/theater pieces. But don’t take my biased word for it. (I jumped ship a couple of years ago after viewing Romeo and Juliet and defected to the other side–from writing about Carolina Ballet to writing, directing and coaching with Carolina Ballet.) The Washington Post said of CB’s Romeo and Juliet, which will be reprised in Raleigh Sept. 20-29: “The best full evening story ballets of the past quarter century are being choreographed right here by Robert Weiss.” Other big guns are watching, too: Last year, Time magazine named the company, now based in its custom-built, spacious, state-of-the-art Raleigh home, “America’s most promising young dance company.” The New York Times recently said, “Carolina Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet could stand up to any of the better known versions.” And Francis Mason, the respected dance historian and publisher of Ballet Review flew down from New York to see for himself. He said of Weiss, on his WQXR radio program: “He has studied the play, and put into dance the poetry the lovers speak, so that when a gesture recurs, you know what they’re recollecting. Stunning, dramatically engrossing and beautifully danced.”

That’s because Weiss has assembled 32 of the finest national and international dancers–like American Melissa Podcasy and Moldavian Timour Bourtasenkov, formerly of the Bolshoi. This world-class company makes it possible for the choreographer to distinguish his story ballets in other ways: Everybody dances to advance the story, not just a few performers while the corps de ballet stands around to dress the stage. And there’s authentic sword fighting in Weiss’ Romeo and Juliet, staged by Jeff A. R. Jones.

Carolina Ballet will bring the year to a close with the premiere of Weiss’ Nutcracker. They’ll perform with the North Carolina Symphony, the orchestra that accompanies all of the troupe’s big ballets. But if big story ballets aren’t your cup of eggnog, you can catch one of the other 68 times that Carolina Ballet will perform at home between now and May 2002. There’s the romantic evening of cabaret with Algonquin Hotel chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci, original works with the Ciompi Quartet, and guest choreography by icons like Damian Woetzel of the New York City Ballet. Local lighting designer Ross Kolman punctuates all of Carolina Ballet’s magic.

I know, I’m gushing. Unabashedly. But I have been hoping that dance would knock me off my feet again the way it did the first time I saw Alvin Ailey’s company perform Revelations in 1969. I just never thought it would be ballet that did it.