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It is altogether fitting that when North Carolina Dance Theatre stages its annual Innovative Works, they move from their established homes at Knight Theater, where they are the resident dance company, and Belk Theater, where they continue to reign during the holiday season with their Nutcracker. At the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, the audience is flanked by the nuts and bolts of ballet barres. The seats are comfortable and sturdy, yet the whole bank of stadium seating is unmistakably temporary. Audio equipment and lighting rigging are quite sophisticated, but they do not diminish the impression that, at ground level, we're being granted a rather special access to a bustling, hard-working dance studio. As an audience, we could hardly be closer to the hub of artistic creation.
The sheer spirit of striving, experimentation, and excitement of Innovative Works seems to have reached an unprecedented peak in 2014 – just by the measures of scale, maturity, and audaciousness of the four new pieces. Often the salient contrast between the choreographies presented on the bigger stages and those at Booth Playhouse or the McBride/Bonnefoux has been in the smallness of the ensembles, the brevity of the pieces, and the tendency to use Innovative as an incubator for members of the troupe to create their first choreographic works and taste the process. With Mark Diamond's Contrast, Sasha Janes's Chaconne, Bonnefoux's Transformation, and Dwight Rhoden's Sit In Stand Out, we're getting four established choreographers pushing the envelope rather than settling for lapidary perfection.
Neither story-based nor humorous, Diamond's Contrast strays rewardingly out of the choreographer's comfort zone, teaming him up with guitarist Troy Conn, who proved to be quite extraordinary, not merely straddling blues, classical, metal, and jazz styles, but authoritatively asserting his mastery of them all. Opening on electric guitar, Conn played the "Blues" section of the piece as Chelsea Dumas, Christina LaForgia, and Amanda Smith danced fast and cool, first to impress one another and then, upon the arrival of Pete Leo Walker, with the pointed intent to win his approval. Walker responded with some "what you got?" swagger and some prime moves of his own. There was more for Walker to show us as the mood shifted from urban and contemporary to traditional and romantic, dancing a lovely pas de deux with Anna Gerberich as Conn switched from electric to acoustic guitar. Unidentified in the program, the piece was almost certainly Villa-Lobos's lovely Prelude No. 1, dedicated to the composer's wife.
Switching back to his electric, Conn grew raucous and rowdy, yet Diamond's systematic chaos, danced by a seven-person ensemble, always seemed precisely in-sync with the music, starting with a welter of divergent moves by the dancers (Gregory DeArmond, Lucas Bilbro, Josh Hall, László Major, Amanda Smith, Dumas, and LaForgia) and ending with fluid, coordinated, and connected movement. Collectively, they resembled a quivering blob at the end. Even though he stuck with his electric guitar, Conn's transition from "Metal" to "Jazz" was as contrasty as his shift from "Acoustic" to "Metal" had been. Conn played "All the Things You Are" with its proper bebop trimmings, namely the intro and outro riffs added by Dizzy Gillespie, and kept it swinging infectiously, not easily accomplished without a rhythm section. Diamond's choreography relaxed dramatically in his finale, flavored with jitterbug interaction, as Hall partnered with Dumas.
As the title would suggest, Janes's Chaconne was the most traditional piece of the evening, set to the concluding movement of Bach's Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin, with costume designs by Aimee J. Coleman that had elements of chivalry – maroon and burgundy tops trimmed with gold – mixed with modern rehearsal wear. Not surprisingly, Janes's choreography had a similar split personality. Amid episodes of traditional partnering, the flow of the ensemble, entering and exiting through a backdrop of black streamers, had a decidedly modernistic flair akin to Paul Taylor's take on Bach, with a few more moments of teasing mischief and a few less of fizzy joie de vivre. The only piece all evening confined to a single selection of music, this 18-minute choreography clearly demonstrated the challenge of keeping such a project engaging. Janes's many shifts and the unflagging energies of the seven-person ensemble nearly always triumphed over tedium, and it was refreshing to see John P. Woodey's lighting design occasionally lifting the veil from the goings-on backstage. Yet a certain amount of unavoidable fatigue set in for me as the violin played on, perhaps because I didn't feel that such stellar performers as Gerberich, Addul Manzano, Sarah Hayes Watson, and David Morse were being stretched anywhere close to showing their fullest capabilities.
Strictly speaking, I should amend my previous reference to Transformation as a choreography by Bonnefoux, for choreographer credits are also accorded to the two dancers who perform it, Walker and Melissa Anduiza. Beyond splitting choreographer credits, I should also note that the concept is a joint effort by Bonnefoux and spoken word artist Quentin "Q" Talley. And since Talley performs his own original text – and dances! – entering uniquely into the action for the second of the three movements, I may have been speaking too strictly when I inferred that Transformation is a dance piece rather than a dance/performance art hybrid. Bonnefoux's eclectic playlist includes music by Schoenberg, Diarra Mayfield, and Jon Hopkins for the three movements, but Talley's poetry gets more attention during the final two. Meanwhile Walker and Anduiza are sensual and scintillating in the Schoenberg and the Mayfield settings, with costumes by Coleman that echo the Neverland tribe of Tiger Lily in Peter Pan. For the final movement, four visible stagehands who have been employed revolving a pair of enormous mirrors (clearly linked to Talley's unusual entrance and his ensuing chant) abandon those mirrors and wrap the two dancers in outerwear that resembles scarves and leggings. The ultimate effect, as the Hopkins music plays, is to transform Walker and Anduiza into something like yellow Klingons from the Star Trek saga. It's all very cool, very suggestive, and very meta. Above all, it's Bonnefoux's creation – as I originally said – because the artistic director of NCDT was the catalyst who made it happen.
There are easier pieces than Transformation to follow, but Rhoden's Sit In Stand Out succeeds, largely because it is also an ambitious multimedia spectacle with an even more pointed theme. On two projection screens, we're shown black and white photographs from the Levine Museum of the New South's permanent collection and their recent "Focus on Justice" exhibit, mostly related to the sit-in aspect of the Civil Rights Movement but also referencing the segregated South and Martin Luther King. Two of the dancers watch with us as the piece begins, looking up at a screen on a sidewall midway between the audience and the edge of the performing space. Then they join four other dancers at six cane chairs facing the second screen up on the rear wall onstage, evoking a live sit-in as they join us in watching more of the historic sit-in photos. Rhoden's soundtrack includes songs sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Nina Simone, and Abbey Lincoln. Most affecting among these was Simone's typically sardonic rendition of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," a knockout anti-song about a gruesome Southern lynching that will slam you in the gut if you've never heard it. Rhoden's choreography reacts to the music we hear and what we see onscreen in a progression of three sections, "Active," "Activate," and "Activism." Holiday's "Pastoral scene of the gallant South" delivers by far the most potent punch, but there was also astonishing ensemble work when we heard a frenetic percussion onslaught by Lincoln's one-time husband, bebop immortal Max Roach. Three couples – Anduiza and Walker, Dumas and Gregory DeArmond, Smith and Gregory Taylor – kept the count and kept together during this extended polyrhythmic explosion. More importantly, amid the images of calm and disciplined civil disobedience, they conveyed the raging fire of an oppressed people's inextinguishable yearning for freedom.
There are repeats of this program, mostly on weekends, through February 15. See the sidebar for details.