Now that Charlotte Youth Ballet has become an annual Nutcracker presenter at Central Piedmont Community College's Halton Theater, CPCC Dance Theatre can no longer hope to contribute to the surplus population of Tchaikovsky ballet during the Christmas season. Instead, they've settled into a smaller CP venue, Pease Auditorium, where their annual potpourri is called "Winter's Dream." The 2014 edition featured a chamber-sized piece set to music by Tchaikovsky, but none of the pieces had the cachet necessary to draw large numbers of eager students to CP's dance program or large numbers of ticket buyers to Pease. As a result, "Winter's Dream" is notably lacking in flair, excitement, and audience enthusiasm.
Among the four dances on the program, the classical pieces are the least satisfying. The first, "Designs With Strings," was choreographed by John Taras in the 1940s to music by Tchaikovsky and restaged by CP's venerable Katharyn Horne; and the second, after intermission, was "Five Not So Easy Pieces," choreographed by Horne. Neither of the pieces featured high-flying leaps or breathtaking catches. In the Tchaikovsky setting, the premium was on balance and extended work on pointe as the six dancers presented a fascinating array of tableaux onstage. If the movements were as easy as they were simple, the result would have been far more pleasant. From a technical standpoint, execution was admirable, but the ensemble's precision came at the visible cost of considerable telltale student stiffness and – with the exception of the tallest of the four female dancers – a near-total absence of joy in the dancing. Nor did it help that Horne insisted on authenticity in the music, playing a recording that sounded older than the choreography, with enough high-frequency noise to add a museum mustiness to the spectacle.
With three women in "Five Not So Easy Pieces" – Nathalia Raigosa, Christina Thomas, Elizabeth Riddell – the emphasis shifted from decorous tableaux and partnering to synchronicity and solo work. Raigosa was the most appealing soloist, but there was also charm when Thomas soloed, and she was more precisely on-the-beat in the ensemble sequences. Karena Holm's costume designs, black and rather clichéd for the Tchaikovsky, were a cheery red and slightly more flattering here, and the Benjamin Britten music, still blasted at an uncomfortably high volume, came from a far less dusty audio source.
For their sheer range, Clay Daniel's pair of pieces was more startling than Horne's. The first of these was actually a short drama that he wrote and directed, "Ghost Town." Actors who appeared in this premiere turned out to be the same dancers who would appear at the end of the evening in another premiere, "The Giants Dance or Set in Stone." Thomas Grady starred as a young hiker who wanders into the ghost town, where he encounters an eccentric widow (Aolani Coban), a pair of sisters (Tashonda Wright and Alkeyla King), and the slightly-deranged Pickles (Levin Huesler), who may not drink muddy water but definitely sleeps in a hollow log. The master of this place, called Sir, appeared at the denouement, played by CPCC Dance's best dancer, Javier Gonzalez, who certainly gave Sir's cackling malignity a good old college try. Even with professional actors, "Ghost Town" would not set off a clamor for more dramatic work from Daniel, and his cautions to shield young children from its horrors could be safely ignored.
Though its demands remained technically modest, the three-part "Giants Dance" was probably the most satisfying piece of the evening. Costumes and props by Daniel and the dancers had a unifying tie-dye motif as the ensemble played out a fanciful conceit – that mysterious Western European rock formations such as Stonehenge were the work of prehistoric giants. The student stiffness that marred Horne's more balletic stagings was not an eyesore here as these stony classical creatures not only rolled their rocks into various formations but also rolled over each other in the dance moves. There were also enough outbreaks of flair in Daniel's choreography (set to music by Filippo Azzaiolo, J.S. Bach, and Rachmaninoff) to show off the lateral curve and grace of Gonzalez's leaps and Coban's agility. Coban was also a redeeming feature earlier in the evening in "Latch," choreographed by Megan Payne to music by Disclosure featuring Sam Smith's vocal. This was the jazziest piece of the evening stylistically, and Coban clearly had the most fun among the four dancers performing it. Huesler, who meshed so well into the "Giants" concept as Gonzalez's chum, was a dampening presence in "Latch" with his caution and stiffness. On the basis of his stage debut as the twisted rustic Pickles, I'd say Huesler has more aptitude for acting. He definitely had more fun.
This program continues through Dec/ 14. For details, see the sidebar.