Everyone who walks into Knight Theater to see Contemporary Fusion will likely have a slightly different notion of what to expect. Knowing that you will see Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's Danses Brilliantes and Mark Godden's Angels in the Architecture doesn't help much unless you've seen at least one of them before, and Dwight Rhoden's Spun to the Sky is a world premiere specially commissioned for this Charlotte Ballet performance, so at most you've only read some pre-publicity. Helping us out during the program, a projection screen descends in front of the curtain before each of the three pieces, and the choreographers make illuminating statements about the origins of each dance. With the excellence of the choreography and the company, getting the gist of the titles should be more than sufficient for most of the audience.
So it may be superfluous to explain that the fusion on view from these three contemporary choreographers is a mélange of dance styles, ranging from the classic lifts and holds seen in Tchaikovsky ballets to the freestyle moves you might see at a high-school dance or a disco. Musical styles covered an even broader spectrum, carrying us all the way back to Bach in a mix spun live by DJ Fannie Mae in Rhoden's new piece before yanking us back to assorted hip-hop and electronica you might hear at an Uptown club. Bonnefoux's and Godden's were purer concepts, each of them confining itself to music of a single composer. In Danses Brilliantes, the composer was Édouard Lalo, best remembered for his Symphonie espagnole and an elder contemporary of Tchaikovsky. The look of Bonnefoux's 2005 piece was consonant with his dancing pedigree as an étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet and a principal exponent of George Balanchine's work at New York City Ballet. Costumes by Aimee J. Coleman were very glittery and traditional, a soft variety of pastels for the ladies and a uniform light gray for the gents.
Alessandra Ball James, returning to the role she originated in 2005, and Addul Manzano were the alpha couple of this piece, highlighting the action with the most decorative lifts in the most elegant pas de deux. Four other couples contributed to the effervescent flow, including Ben Ingel and Elizabeth Truell finishing their first seasons with Charlotte Ballet after stepping up from stints with Charlotte Ballet II a year ago. Newcomers were the rule rather than the exception when Danses Brillantes kicked off the 2005-06 season, so the 2015 reprise was far more seasoned, confident, and polished. In between the spotlight James-Manzano pas de deux, other couples might appear two at a time before we saw the whole set. Or the four guys or gals might appear separately in unpredictable sequences. The only asymmetry in Bonnefoux's concept was Sarah Hayes Harkins, who either partnered with Manzano or danced apart as a soloist. Adding further variety as the dance unfolded, Manzano and Ball also had solo spots.
The transition from classical to modern dance wasn't at all radical when we came to Godden's Angels in the Architecture, for it had all the folksy simplicity and contemplative spiritual uplift you could hope for in a piece set to Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite. Slightly reminiscent of Alvin Ailey's iconic Revelations with its crouching postures and golden light, Angels was more moving than I could have reasonably hoped – and it seemed to be for Godden as well when he appeared onstage after the performance to take his bows. Perhaps the revelation for Godden was the magical new lighting design by Michael Korsch, who lit all three works on the bill. Costumes and scenery by Paul Daigle are integral to the thrust of Angels: brooms and chairs that can be hung at the periphery of the stage; long skirts for the women that lift up and become tents or hoods in the hands of the dancers.
Beyond the seismic swell of Copland's suite when he brings the central melody – adapted from the Shaker song, "Tis the gift to be simple" – to full orchestral flower, I found Godden's piece even more moving as he depicted the Shaker way of life through the simple gestures of 12 modestly clad dancers wielding an equal number of two very basic props. In his introductory remarks, Godden referenced the regimentation of Shaker customs and rituals, remarking on the freedom that individual Shakers find within those self-imposed restrictions. The juxtaposition of individual freedom expressed within the customs and rituals of a community came out on a couple of levels as the six couples danced with their six brooms, six chairs, and six dresses. Individuality peeped forth in the ensemble segments, in the differences between the six couples, and in the personalities that shone out in the men and women within each couple as they conformed to the same rules, each in his or her way. Whether it was the simplicity of the actions or the music, I couldn't tell, but those ever-repeating slivers of freedom seemed to settle into an encompassing framework of life that felt poignantly fragile and ephemeral. That's about as well as I can explain why I saw most of this performance through misty eyes. There wasn't anything ponderous about this darkling spectacle at all. In fact, when the six guys mounted the six brooms on equally spaced hooks upstage and set them swinging, like pendulums of a grandfather clock, I may have chuckled.
By contrast, the loud, energetic, and exuberant Spun to the Sky was calculated to send you out of Knight Theater recharged and excited, without a care in the world. The only flaw on opening night was in the electronics, which were pretty impressive even as they malfunctioned. From what I could gather, DJ Fannie Mae had the wrong sequence of songs in her laptop when we first saw her perched upstage above the dancers, because they didn't move when the first song started, and I noticed the errant song when it occurred again deep into the piece after we rebooted. There's really no better word for what happened, as the curtain came down almost instantly when the problem was perceived and hardly stayed down for 10 seconds before restarting.
Though the typography in the program booklet didn't set them apart as James and Manzano had been for the opening Danses, Pete Leo Walker and Melissa Anduiza were clearly the lead couple in Rhoden's piece. They're almost always center stage when they appear, they draw the most eye-catching of Christine Darch's mod black-and-white costumes, and they cut the flashiest moves – which is probably why they worked up such a gleaming lather by the time they took their bows. The expenditure of energy might be the reason why Anduiza was scratched from Angels and replaced by Amanda Smith, or maybe the stunning transformation of her hair after Danses had something to do with the last-minute change. She was every bit as devastating here as she was in the title role of Carmen, igniting the 2013-14 season, nor do I think that fanciers of the male anatomy would have any complaints about the muscular Walker. Electricity was enhanced by the way dancers burst onto the scene, 15 in this whirlwind, from behind the glittery black curtains underneath DJ Fannie Mae’s perch. There was no coyness, no preliminary getting acquainted of any kind to mar the pure orgiastic flow of the spin, the mix of dance styles as wide and dizzying as the kaleidoscope of music. Be ready for a fascinating shower of crossfades, mirrored by Rhoden's choreographed chaos. All of the unspoken tender regard that we saw in Godden's Appalachia was discarded in this urban paradise. The mix of Bach, Beyoncé, Michael Nyman, Nick Jones, Lil Wayne, Bassnectar, Drake, Drumsound & Bassline Smith, and Hoodie Allen won't be to everybody's liking all the time, though the same can be said for the heavy doses of the more sedate Lalo and Copland music. It's amazing how a company as vivacious and precise as Charlotte Ballet can smooth over such differences and dislikes.