Innovative Works, the North Carolina Dance Theatre’s annual exposition of recent and brand-new short ballets, is always an eagerly anticipated show. This year’s five-dance production (repeating through November 14) — put together in an insanely short rehearsal period — opens and closes brilliantly, although two of the middle dances could be stronger.
Dwight Rhoden’s spirited, smoky “Moody Booty Blues,” which he created for Dance Theatre three years ago, opens the evening. This dance is so high-energy that I had remembered it as involving a large troupe of dancers, instead of only five. But with dancers like this, five is enough to electrify the blues. Once again, Justin VanWeest dazzled in this work. Three years ago he was fresh from NC School of the Arts, and one felt he might go skidding off the stage in his enthusiasm; now he has gained control and strength without losing his youthful charm or dangerous edge. Each time I see him, I think of the tingling awareness of potential violence that ripples through the room whenever the door opens in backstreet drinking establishments and country juke joints. VanWeest is a ballet dancer with classical technique but there is something untamed about him, some bad boy thing that awakens an atavistic appreciation of the delicious possibility that something could go out of control. Since Rhoden’s dances tend to get right on that line between stringently controlled ballet drama and mad chaotic melodrama, VanWeest works well with the material. In the end of this piece, it is he who’s knocked down and left sitting on the dusty floor while the two women he’s picked up sashay off into the night. If you think a woman can’t sashay in pointe shoes, just take a look at foxy Rebecca Carmazzi and flirty Anna Gerberich, who appears to have been born to shake her booty on tiptoe.
I couldn’t work up any interest in Uri Sands’ “Tearing for a Cure.” The dance has something to do with the numerous illnesses and causes for which people wear those little colored ribbons. It opens with a long bout of pointless running around the stage — I suppose to refer to the innumerable fundraisers for which one is forever being asked to sponsor a runner. There are several wonderful sequences with male/female pairs doing surprising things, but the lighting is so dim and the overall tone so lugubrious that my main response was irritation. It was only after the lights came up at the end that important aspects of the costuming became visible, and only then could one see that the particles that had floated down onto the dancers at the finale were actually yellow ribbons.
Frequent choreographic contributor Mark Diamond is represented by two works. The older “There Again, Not Slowly,” danced to music by Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin, is dynamic and sexy, a heart-racing showcase for the sinuous vitality of six dancers. The chemistry between Rebecca Carmazzi and Sasha Janes is more intense than ever. Although their easy coordination indicates deep familiarity, nothing is taken for granted on stage, which is very moving. They take special care with each other yet risk everything in daring actions. Ballet, both physically and emotionally, is a shifting balance between trust and challenge, faith and gamble. The other two couples also demonstrated this clearly, especially Alessandra Ball and David Ingram.
Diamond’s new work, “Matisse,” was not quite ready for prime time on its premiere night. There is nothing wrong with it that time and money couldn’t cure, but money for time is what is always lacking for artists. The piece is an interesting examination of the interplay between the painter, his models, and his artworks — and, by analogy, between the choreographer, his dancers, and his dances. It is set to a cool mix of music by mu ziq, Plaid and Rhythmic Fission, with some voice-over quotes from Matisse about his aesthetic beliefs (and with an annoying hiss in the recording). The best part of this work is its bringing to motion Matisse’s great image of dance, which is so alive that you are sure the dancers move when your back is turned. In the painting, the women are a rich ochre, almost a terra rosa color, and here the color is not quite right — but the live dancers mimic their painted models skillfully, and it is deeply satisfying to see that frozen dance in motion at last.
Dustin Layton portrays the master (he is more believable as the young Matisse), working with Traci Gilchrest as a model, and Mary Ellen Beaudreau poses as an odalisque. She is fabulous, as rich as a lithograph, her sleek motion beautifully expressing the period in Matisse’s art in which he was obsessed with line. The statuesque Kara Wilkes would have been marvelous as the great Blue Nude, if only her costume had been the correct shade of blue. It was, however, teeth-jarringly wrong. Since Matisse was one of the greatest colorists who has ever lived (and who by the end of his life found the way to marry color and line into irreducible perfection, as evidenced by the Blue Nude), this wrongness of color, along with the less-than-perfect copies of his paintings that appeared on stage, dooms the work in its current form.
The evening closes with a successful new work by company dancer and rehearsal director Sasha Janes. He developed “Glass Houses” in collaboration with sculptor Shaun Cassidy, who has done several public art projects in Charlotte and who teaches at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC. Cassidy’s large white sculpture demarcates space and dominates half the stage — it is like a jungle gym with a heavy Sol Le Witt influence. The stage sculpture combines aspects of two of Cassidy’s previous works with the addition of a swing, which was requested by the choreographer. The swing is a critical element in conveying the dance’s concept and in activating the space in a fresh way. Janes, who is from Australia, is interested in the way the Internet and its virtual world intersect with the actual world in which we are physically present — in the ways it allows us to connect despite the constraints of space and time yet at the same time frames and exposes us in unexpected ways as we leave our electronic footprints.
Half a dozen dancers in sleek white costumes piped with thin red lines (by Jennifer Symes) move between the two worlds to the music of the Kronos Quartet, with the action gradually going more and more to the virtual side. You can see people friending and un-friending each other — there is a poignant moment when one is ostracized and alone amid the busy web of activity — and there is a constant interplay of group and individual, both on the stage and up in the sculpture. The choreography does include leaps which sizzle the air, but the entire space of the stage box is activated by the height of the sculpture and the movement of the dancers on its narrow bars and platforms. Near the end, the six dancers are joined by ten more, multiplying the connections and possibilities just as occurs in Facebook and other social networking websites and filling the stage with excitement.
This is Janes’ first large-scale choreography, and it indicates a substantial talent. His debut effort was a beautiful pas de deux, but his first multi-dancer work was not as strong. “Glass Houses” seems to promise that we will continue to see Janes’ artfulness even after that sad and inevitable day his joints will no longer let him dazzle us as a dancer.
Innovative Works continues at the Booth Playhouse of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center through November 14. See our calendar for details. The NCDT dancers have dedicated their performances of this program to the memory of Carolina Ballet trainee dancer Elena Shapiro, who was killed by a drunk driver in September, and whose brother is a member of NCDT.