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The North Carolina Dance Theatre makes a practice of indicating its breadth of interests and the depth of its talent pool in each of its programs, but this season's thrilling Innovative Works program (through Nov. 11) in the Blumenthal Center's Booth Playhouse carries that practice even further than usual. Of the five dances, four are premiere performances; the fifth is new to Charlotte. None of them is a traditional story ballet, but every one is rich with humanistic physical narrative.
The evening opens with "Seed," choreographed by company member Heather Ferranti Ferguson, who also designed the charming red and black costumes. There's a definite Balanchine influence, but it does not overpower Ferguson's more feminine sensibility. Dancer Rebecca Carmazzi was particularly buoyant. She is one of those special dancers who can get up in the air — and then get a little higher. This was very effective with the airy flute music. Alessandra Ball, with her long elegant limbs, was equally beautiful, and the women were well partnered by Patrick Kastoff. Although the 4-woman ensemble parts were not very strong, overall the work was very enjoyable, if not very pure, ethnically speaking. I found the mixture of Japanese and Chinese music rather odd. Pan-Asian probably works better in restaurants than in other cultural expressions.
Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, choreographed the next piece for the NCDT. "you/me/we" comprises three dances linked by the Nina Simone songs to which they are set. Justin Van Weest (a NC School of the Arts graduate, from Mebane, NC) led off with a solo to "Put a Spell On You." Van Weest is a very exciting young dancer, but I don't think he has had chance yet to suffer quite enough for love to be perfectly effective here. Alessandra Ball and Vladimir Lut were gorgeous together in "Be My Husband," perfectly in command of Webre's acrobatic weaving, twining, and flipping movements while also communicating the emotional kaleidoscope of committed erotic love. The pieces ends with "Ne Me Quitte Pas," danced here by Adam Stein and the riveting Nicholle Rochelle, whose stage presence is nearly as commanding as Simone's voice. As it happened, I had seen a slightly different version of this dance just a week before, when the Washington Ballet performed it as part of another song suite. Rochelle and Stein, delving beyond prettiness to the essential ferocity of love, made of it not a plea, but a demand. And when Rochelle raises her leg up beside her ear like a queen's scepter, she is not to be denied.
The second half of the program begins with a barefoot modern dance work by Daniel Gwirtzman, "Cycles." I didn't find the choreography compelling, even though it was full of story. It includes several of the tropes I find most irritating in contemporary dance: lack of connection among the dancers, and between the dancers and the audience; emotions or ideas only sketched in; pointless running about; music that is not music. There were numerous violent scenes, but they didn't chill you like they should. The dancers, even though slightly lacking in assurance in their shoeless state, were quite emotive compared with many contemporary modern dancers, but even Anna Gerberich's lasering eye contact couldn't overcome the essential head-game coolness to the choreography. It did have some merits. Although there were no leaps or lifts, the dance is built on several interesting weight-transfer techniques that clearly could be used in ballet. This piece also gave the men forays into behaviors far from the danseur noble ideal; it gave the broad-brush Rochelle a set of small gestures to which she brought an unexpected subtlety; and it gave the 17-year-old Gerberich a push from prettiness to power.
The most fully satisfying dance on the program was Mark Diamond's new work, "Aqua Terra Flora," danced by Anna Gerberich, Alessandra Ball and Adam Stein to Carlo Domeniconi's guitar composition "Koyunbaba," played on stage by Adam Whiting. My notes begin: "che bella!" Beauty works for me, and Diamond's structure was beautiful, as were the individual movements — and the costumes, which he designed. So were the music, the lighting, and needless to say, the dancers. The piece opens with Ball curled on the floor, showing us her long, elegant back. It was like finding an unbroken chambered nautilus on the beach, then watching as it swept back into the sea as she unfurled into the dance. From then on there was a wash and pull, a flow of lovely bold shapes encrusted with rich detail. Gerberich, with her comfy toe shoes back on, was ravishing, light as sea foam or windblown petals. My only quarrel was with Adam Stein's rather limp gestures (pulling a bow, chopping a tree) early on, but he more than made up for those as time went on.
The evening ended with another new work by the prolific Dwight Rhoden, NCDT's new resident choreographer. "Moody Booty Blues," set to a selection of up-tempo electric blues songs, is purely fun, but it is also robust ballet. The audience was laughing with pleasure, and the dancers were grinning and shaking that thing, no lie. I certainly hope that Rhoden's costumes for the men become a fashion trend: It was very easy to look at those fine torsos through black Lycra lace muscle shirts. Justin Van Weest was dazzling, and Stein and Lut were right there with him, while the daunting Traci Gilchrest and the fearless Nicholle Rochelle vamped everything in sight, dancing the blues on pointe. All socks in the auditorium were definitely knocked off, and the endorphin levels were running very high when the curtain finally fell after numerous ovations.
No matter how much we revere their past artistic achievements, to live, all art forms must continually reinvent themselves. It is clear that as long as the dancers and choreographers of the North Carolina Dance Theatre are working, the art of ballet will not ossify, but find refreshment and surprising new life every season.