The ebullient North Carolina Dance Theatre opened its 2009-10 season with a rollicking three-part program in the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center — a program that was guaranteed to please all the people at least some of the time and most of the people all of the time. Ballet, Ballroom & Bluegrass showcases the guises ballet can take when it is not in strict classical mode, and the result is an evening of pleasure.
The most challenging and thrilling work — the meat of the program — is the sharply delineated Map, choreographed for NCDT by the great San Francisco artist Alonzo King and set on the company in 1998. It had not been performed in six years, and, given the turnover in the company’s dancers since then, it was time to share the knowledge of it with the current group before all those who had learned it from the choreographer also moved on. (Dance knowledge is different from any other in how easily it can be lost. Video is well and good, but unless dances are passed on directly from dancer to dancer, something goes missing, and the dance must be “reconstructed” or fade from memory.)
The three-part dance, set to Arvo Pärt’s “Ludis” and “Fratres,” with a band of silence between, seems to chart life’s journey in its sections titled “Look Up,” “Promise,” and “Persist.” Under Nate McGaha’s great shafts of sidelight stabbing down from on high, and in Robert Rosenwasser’s minimal velvet costumes that fit the bodies like mottled shadows, the dancers carry out their designs. King combines classical ballet with modern movement, and as the dancers write his runic forms in space, they exemplify the great forces of the physical world — ineluctable, never static, and always in fluctuating balance. The third and most moving section is danced by veterans Traci Gilchrest, Sasha Janes, and Rebecca Carmazzi, along with relative newcomer David Ingram, in such a way as to make us aware of the thickness of air, the magnetic pull of gravity against resistant human will, and the inarticulable power of physical art to unleash great emotion in the viewer.
The evening opens with a strong rendition of the always-fun Nine Sinatra Songs, by Twyla Tharp. When she made this piece, Tharp was looking back (without excessive nostalgia) from the 1980s to the ballroom dance culture associated with Sinatra’s warm crooning, and further back to earlier traditions of ballroom dance competition. I think this work holds up so well because we are adding another layer, looking back at her looking back. At any rate, it is hard to be dissatisfied with gorgeous couples dancing, in which the graceful styles of the ballroom combine with Tharp’s demanding twists and unusual methods of balance, or with the elegant Oscar de la Renta costumes, or with the dreamy lighting (Nate McGaha’s improvement on the original Jennifer Tipton design).
Joseph Watson returned from Aspen-Santa Fe Ballet for a special appearance in this piece — one of the first he danced on his arrival in Charlotte — and he and Anna Gerberich led it off (appropriately) with “Softly as I Leave You.” What a difference two years can make: Watson commands the stage now. With his long steps and tremendous reach of arms, he swept up Gerberich as if she were the only woman in the universe. She — a young girl no longer — floated into those long arms and up into the lifts like a flower garland on the breeze. Lovely. Alessandra Ball has returned from Madrid to NCDT after a year dancing with the Victor Ullate Ballet; she has brought back not only her native grace but also a new set of sassy Spanish techniques. She was a knock-out in pink ruffles, dancing with Justin VanWeest to “Forget Domani.” Kara Wilkes displayed her regal elegance with newcomer Dustin Layton in “All the Way.” Their restrained emotionality and long-held extensions were very effective. Also particularly notable was the effervescent Sarah James (she has the prettiest ankles!), dancing “Somethin’ Stupid” with Max Levy, who has also just joined the company. He brings a comic, almost antic, nature, quick feet, and an explosive quality to his jumps, and he will clearly be a strong addition to the company’s mix.
The evening closed with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Shindig. Although NCDT performs this often on tour, it had not appeared on a home concert program in six years, and the home crowd was wildly enthusiastic over the French-born artistic director’s melding of classical ballet with Americana — square, circle, and line dances; men in jeans showing off; flirty women in full skirts swinging with their partners, heel and toe, to the live music of five-piece group The Greasy Beans. This completely delightful work will be NCDT’s contribution to the Ballet in America program next June at the Kennedy Center, where thousands more can take joy in the strange and wonderful evolution of a formerly aristocratic art.
Ballet, Ballroom & Bluegrass repeats Saturday September 19. See our calendar for details. NCDT’s children’s matinee, Once Upon a Time, also repeats on Sunday September 20.