We want to watch dancers not only because they are beautiful people expressing meaning from choreography’s cunning language but also because they embody some of our deepest and most powerful ideals about how to be as humans. Dancers have backbone and persistence. They hold their heads up and smile through the tough bits. They are very strong and equally pliant. A company of dancers is a community taking risks together — which means they must trust each other. They are daring of body and spirit: their hearts are bold. They have courage. They are, in a word, troupers.
“The show must go on.” This is no metaphor, but the commanding principle of the trouper’s life, and one to which the rest of us try to adhere. The North Carolina Dance Theatre demonstrated something about carrying on despite adversity during its first run of the 2007-8 season, September 20-23, in the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Manhattan Moves South, the demanding three-dance mix of works by Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp and Dwight Rhoden, was a powerful program — in spite of the sudden attrition of three of the company’s female dancers due to injury and illness.
Trouble and opportunity are constant companions, and new company member Seia Rassenti grasped the opportunity to literally launch herself into the breach. The 18-year-old Rassenti had been a member of NCDT2 last season, but these were her first performances as a member of the main company. She was already cast to lead off Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs with new dancer Joseph Watson in “Softly As I Leave You,” but when Rebecca Carmazzi, who was to dance the final pas de deux with Sasha Janes, was injured, Rassenti stepped up. After all, you can’t have Nine Sinatra Songs if there are only eight. With minimal rehearsal, she donned the flame-orange one-shoulder dress and flew confidently across the stage into Janes’ arms, and through all of Tharp’s alternately tender and violent moves. She was electric, and if there were a few rough patches, well, “That’s Life.”
The roughness was apparent mainly in contrast to Rassenti and Watson’s smooth performance in the first pas de deux. Watson, one of three new male company members, is fresh out of Juilliard, but he appears to have been dancing since he drew his first breath. He is that wonderful thing, a thoroughly trained natural. We’d already seen him inject the Ailey piece with some loose-limbed funk, but here the big man demonstrated his grace as a partner, with a confidence-inspiring gentle alertness. Pardon me while I rave, but this young dancer is going lift NCDT even higher on the thrill chart.
He has assistance on this from the other new men, both of whom were showcased in this piece. David Ingram partnered Nicholle Rochelle in “Strangers in the Night” and in “My Way,” and it’s clear that he has a stage presence equal to hers, which is enormous. Ian Grosh took Traci Gilchrest through the boozy antics of “One For My Baby (and One More for the Road)” with the kind of panache that makes a silver-haired lady remember exactly why a woman makes a fool of herself with a man in a bar. Gilchrest is so commanding that it was really quite something to see her tripping and tumbling, splaying and spinning in the hands of an inebriate with his shirttail hanging out. This is my personal favorite of the dances in this piece because it packs in the most story while making a dazzling display of choreographic imagination and dancerly daring.
Yet another new company member shone in “All the Way.” Kara Wilkes, tall and serenely elegant, was partnered with Jhe W. Russell, who has the same happy attributes. Seeing them together made me realize that he hasn’t had just the right partner before. He looked twice as good as I’ve ever seen him, which is saying quite a bit. Wilkes moves with a golden liquidity that seemed to temper Russell’s formality — and that formal precision sets off the smoothness of her motion. Better living through chemistry.
There were still more last-minute cast changes in Nine Sinatra Songs. Alessandra Ball had been brought in to cover for the injured Mia Cunningham. Although she had already danced the lead that afternoon in Beauty and the Beast, and in the program opener, she was luminous and fresh in pink ruffles. She and Randolph Ward bubbled with carefree pleasure in “Forget Domani.” But no one was smiling more than Sarah James, brought up from NCDT2 to replace Anna Gerberich — another 18-year-old trouper — who had collapsed after dancing the two previous nights with a cold. What James lacked in polish she more than made up for in enthusiasm. She gave it all she had in “Somethin’ Stupid” with Justin VanWeest and had a good time doing it. The same is true for the entire company. One didn’t have to know the back story to see that stage magic was happening throughout, and the final full-company reprise of “My Way” just emphasized that their way is full of heart.
The program opened with Alvin Ailey’s enjoyable Night Creature, set to Duke Ellington’s music. Led by Sasha Janes and Traci Gilchrest, the company got quickly into the groove, even though Sarah James was dancing the piece for the first time and Anna Gerberich’s role had been excised — there were simply no more bodies available for substitution. By the middle of the second movement, the gap was not apparent, and we saw some inspired bopping by Addul Manzano and Joseph Watson.
The evening closed with a recent work by Dwight Rhoden, Artifice, set to an insane and subversive mix of music. Artifice takes on the related themes of master and puppet/creator and created/leader and follower, in a circus-like setting. The theatre always loves the theatre and the circus as metaphors for life’s parade of pageants and charades, and a certain type of theatre loves to paint the shadows dark and revels in a biting humor. I was reminded of Punch and Judy shows, of Fellini, of Brecht. As usual with Rhoden, a great deal of strange stuff happens extremely rapidly, here to characters like Pink Lady Miss and Twist Lime Divine, Ace Heart Break and Switch Blade Spade, who are directed by ringmaster Joker Swing King (Jhe Russell in a fearsome penciled moustache). We are led along the path of Rhoden’s thoughts so quickly and heedlessly — yes, yes, wonderful, so true, how funny — the art of creation, the creation of art, the artifice of art — that when we fetch up against the final images danced to (a strange version of) the "Agnus Dei," and realize that we’ve just seen a portrait of the artist (the artificer) as a god — well, it is rather an epiphany.
Seeing David Ingram in a very short skirt dancing madly as Diamond Black Jack was an epiphany, too. Alessandra Ball, in her fourth role of the day, was strutting way outside the lines of the decorous ballerina image. Nicholle Rochelle showed her mettle and finally broke out of the tension that had concealed her spirit all evening — you could see the instant when she lowered her shield — and did some divine wriggling as Royal Red Flush. Boldness becomes her.
One of the synonyms for courage (from the Latin cor, heart) is fearlessness. With this dance troupe you get a stage full of fearless, and it really does make a person take heart to see that much intellectual, physical and artistic courage in action.
This season the NCDT has begun a Matinee Magic series geared for children. The first installment, on the 22nd, was Mark Diamond’s Beauty and The Beast, set to music by Tchaikovsky. I can’t tell you exactly what, because it was cut from numerous sources and the snips were then pasted together as a ballet score. It was a very effective score, even though I did sometimes finds myself looking for swans and a sorcerer — oops, wrong story — but I never feel like it is quite right for choreographers to rearrange someone else’s music that way.
Diamond’s choreography for this classic tale is smart and satisfying, while supplying perfectly clear narrative and emotional lines. It can be easily read by young children, but it assumes that the children are intelligent and sentient beings. The characters are archetypal, not shallow caricatures, and his Beast is particularly sympathetic. There’s all sorts of humorous business early on, with Beauty’s suitors and her grabby sisters, in which the acting and the dancing are very well meshed.
Diamond directs the NCDT2 company, which danced this piece, along with first company dancers Alessandra Ball as Beauty and Vladimir Lut as the Beast and many children from the NCDT school. Standing out as one of the Sprites of Nature was Leigh Anne Albrechta, whose nature it is to execute back flips with nonchalant élan. Lut gets a lot of emotion into his portrayals; he was quite moving as the poor lonely lovesick Beast and very sweet as the sturdy handsome prince redeemed by Beauty’s love. At the end, the graceful Alessandra Ball gets swept around by him in a joyous pas de deux that culminates this well-crafted story ballet. Judging from the audience reaction, there’s a new cadre of ballet-lovers growing up in Charlotte, and they want their NCDT.