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Beginning with the Martha Graham Dance Company early last week at Knight Theater and continuing last weekend with the NC Dance Festival at UNC Charlotte, it has been an amazing two weeks for dance in Charlotte. Quality and variety were sustained at another nifty dance venue, the Patricia McBride & Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, where Charlotte Ballet built on its annual tradition of Innovative Works programs. Two unofficial parts of that tradition have been kept up for 2014. Once again, we have a new piece by Charlotte Ballet II director Mark Diamond, “Path,” and a new piece by one of the company dancers, in this case David Ingram with “Píso sto Midén.” Longtime resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden unveiled his new “Peace Piece,” and Charlotte Ballet associate director Sasha Janes, whose first contributions to Innovative were when he was a company dancer, has two works premiering this year – but only one of them will be presented at each performance. Janes’ “The Seed and the Soil” opened this year’s run of Innovative Works, which continues through February 21, and “We Danced Through Life” will join the rotation on February 5.
Using three of the panels that divide the main studio at McBride/Bonnefoux into two rehearsal rooms, “Píso sto Midén” (or “Back to Zero”) was the least seasoned of the new works. Three pairs of dancers were deployed in front of the panels for the opening segment of the piece, which was set to music by Bach, Verdi, and Karl Friedrich Abel, a student of Bach’s. Ingram’s misstep occurred when he relocated one of the pairs behind – but between – the panels. At that point, you could only see both Ballet II members Saho Kumagai and Josiah Savage if you were seated in the middle of the audience. It was rather irritating for those of us seated near or beyond the surrounding aisles. Fortunately, the dancers multi-tasked and became stagehands fairly early in the piece, moving those pesky panels to the wings. From there on, Ingram’s promise as a choreographer was more evident, particularly in his setting for the “Parigi, o cara” duet from the final act of La Traviata. From the elite troupe, Addul Manzano and Anna Gerberich were both outstanding in their respective pas de deux with Elizabeth Truell and Lucas Wilson-Bilbro.
Except for Savage, all these feet – and more – were back on deck for Diamond’s “Path,” a piece that the choreographer introduced as dealing with negativity and pressure. Set to the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the work appeared to be deeply preoccupied with adolescence, with Jordan Leeper as the beleaguered protagonist. The verbal preamble of the soundtrack, before we reached the Beethoven, sounded very parental and very derogatory, the word “idiot” figuring repeatedly in the ranting. Manzano and Alessandra Ball James handled the sternness toward the mostly cowering Leeper in this unmetered opening section. When the music kicked in, the stage filled with a crowd of dancers, seeming to indicate that the pressure Diamond wanted us to see was from peers. Out of this crowd, two dancers stood out meaningfully, Gerberich and the muscular Pete Leo Walker. But were they real or imaginary? I couldn’t decide whether Gerberich was Leeper’s sweetheart or the woman of his dreams. Likewise, Walker could have been construed as a helpful mentor or the man Leeper hoped to become. As the solemn music finished, the final tableau had the scolding James pointing imperiously at Leeper from one side and Walker beckoning from the other. We could view Diamond’s hero as either torn between two very different aspects of his topsy-turvy adolescence – or in transition from his present to his future.
The two pieces presented after intermission weren’t as polished or satisfying as Diamond’s, but they were certainly interesting. Utilizing eight dancers, Rhoden’s “Peace Piece” labored to set a tone of hope in turbulent times and presented a fine succession of pas de deux, some of them simultaneous and others merely intersecting. Music by Glory of Byzance, Jim-E Stack, Dale Warland, Lisa Moore, and Max Richter was occasionally peaceful to a fault, or just plain dull, and the non-musical portion of the soundtrack – what seemed like a burst of gunfire at first but was really a helicopter – was merely bewildering, certainly an inadequate evocation of societal upheaval if that’s what Rhoden was after. Sarah Hayes Harkins made her first appearance of the night to vibrant effect, and Walker was able to put more of his athletic capabilities on display.
Janes’ choreography is always fascinating, and “The Seed and the Soil” is grounded in a unique concept by visual artist Frank Selby and a provocative topic, experiments by the CIA using mind-altering drugs on coerced subjects from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s during the Cold War era. Unexpectedly, Selby participated in the piece as the experimental subject. Music by White Rainbow and Unsuk Chin was psychedelic enough for Selby’s concept without quite communicating the Kafkaesque horror of the CIA’s enterprise. Costumes by Aimee J. Coleman were far more tone-deaf, but not as downright silly as the inflating stick man – the sort you see towering over seedy used car lots grabbing your attention – that we all had to stare at during the latter portion of the dance. Clearly some retooling of costumes and props will be required before this new piece can rise to the seriousness and urgency of its concept. Meanwhile, there’s some fine movement set on Harkins, Manzano, Leeper, and Melissa Anduiza – if you can forget the costumes they’re wearing and that dopey plastic stick man upstage.