Choreographer Robert Weiss’ long-gestating desire to set a dance to Handel’s “Messiah” was perennially blocked by a problem endemic to the piece and to his medium: “Messiah” has become associated with Christmas — and for a ballet company, Christmas means “The Nutcracker.”
So it was something of a Christmas gift when Weiss arrived at the Carolina Ballet, where he remains as artistic director today, in 1997 to find the rights to “The Nutcracker” tied up in legal limbo.
“When I first proposed the idea of choreographing it,” Weiss says, “I met with very big resistance from a lot of people because the piece is so famous, and it stood on its own as an oratorio for hundreds of years.” His take premiered in 1998, however, and has become a favorite of the Raleigh-based company — though it moved back to Easter (the holiday for which it was originally composed, back in 1741) once issues with “The Nutcracker” were ironed out.
This month’s Pennsylvania Ballet performances of the piece will be a homecoming for Weiss, who served as the company’s artistic director from 1982-1990.
“When I was 10 years old, some friends of my parents took me to a church at Christmas time to hear ‘The Messiah’ in New York,” Weiss recalls. “I practically couldn’t stay in my seat. It has so many wonderful, melancholy passages and joyous passages that, I always felt, cried out to be danced.”