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In its final program of the season, the North Carolina Dance Theatre asserts itself as a company as thoroughly contemporary as any presented at the famed American Dance Festival. Although never betraying the grand and gorgeous traditions of ballet which have formed its character, this group of artists makes those traditions serve and express a very 21st century aesthetic.
A paradigm-shift movement, like post-modernism, takes some time to mature out of its mewling, self-absorbed infancy. The art of the late stage of the post-modern era, in which we are now living, makes up for some of the drearily mechanical products of early-stage theorizers. Certainly we are still burdened with lousy artworks made by people who eschew the concept of taste and can't distinguish between pastiche and plurality — but the dances performed on May 17th show that NCDT understands the difference perfectly.
The program at Belk Theater opens with new choreography by Mark Diamond, the program director for Dance Theatre’s second company, NCDT2. New City South, set to music by Victor Wooten and by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, wrenches dramatic focus away from any "main" character and brings the romantic interludes and courtly crowd scenes beloved of ballet into the street-jiving, beer-drinking, pool-shooting, cellphone-talking, Ipod-listening present. These are not secondary scenes to support the main storyline and fill in the music. They represent a way of thinking that is fundamentally different from that behind a story with a central character and single storyline. Here we see one of the more powerful and useful tenets of post-modernism in action: all stories are good. You could call this dance Altmanesque: You put all the little stories together, and you get a beautiful patchwork of life.
New City South is a lovingly rendered portrait of Charlotte itself, a series of sketches limned by characters you might see around Uptown — young people looking for love, success, action, redemption. Diamond is very skilled at devising movements that express feeling in human interactions, and at introducing humor, and the NCDT dancers are perhaps even more skilled at putting the heart into the dances. Each scene has its considerable charms, but the most moving is "Grace," in which Randolph Ward, one of the company’s newest members, and Mia Cunningham, one of its most seasoned, were stellar as a preacher and his temptation, respectively. This scene includes a wonderful kinetic visual: behind the preacher as the dance begins is what looks like a large rock — Rock of Ages — that dissolves itself into a choir that moves in the background like a Greek chorus before recomposing itself into rock. The whole of New City South is like that, a kaleidoscope of metamorphosis, showing the changing face of eternal verities.
The central work in the evening’s program is Salt, by the great San Francisco choreographer Alonzo King, which was premiered by NCDT two years ago and was restaged this year by NCDT associate artistic director Jerri Kumery. This is a great work, succeeding on level after level.
Its structure is similar to that of New City South. It is a series of scenes to discrete pieces of music, linked by the music’s similarities and by an underlying flow of feeling. In this case the music is seven traditional chants from Morocco and from India. This multi-culturalism doesn’t seem like some pointless post-modern ploy, but feels completely natural because the chants resonate inside the listener in the same way. With this ancient music is combined a minimal set that sacrifices nothing in the way of richness to its uncompromising purity, and some extremely inventive and highly modern costumes (Lycra and Mylar certainly have been good to the ballet).
The dancing was superb. NCDT is an ensemble company — I’ll say it again — full of stars. On the 17th, Mia Cunningham was shining very brightly. Her solo to “Lameemah” was ravishing. Traci Gilchrest was fantastic in an extended lament about woman’s entrapment in cultures that restrict her but do not even support her in her limited sphere. This scene alone is worth full ticket price, but it soon gave way to others as beautiful and moving, particularly the men’s dance. Adam Stein’s solo made me cry. He seemed to be made out of music. He and Nicholle Rochelle, magnificent in her strength, were also stunning together in their duet, but all the dancers achieved what surely must have been the choreographer’s intent, and made their bodies into instruments of rhythm, twining their motions into additional percussive lines that you could almost hear beneath the chanting.
The evening closed with another amazing feat of cultural combination, the premiere of Uri Sands’ All in Your Trunk. Sands is a former principal dancer with both the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and NCDT who has become an award-winning choreographer. As demonstrated in this work, he combines the elegance of classical ballet with the crazy cool energy of hip-hop and community life. For All In Your Trunk, he worked with West Charlotte High School’s drum line to create a piece that translates the joyous spectacle of a snazzy marching band to the performance stage.
It also brings the drum line to the stage for a visual and auditory blow out. The young musicians, all dressed in black, parade down the theater aisles to take the stage on either side of and behind the dancers, who are resplendent in red and white “band uniforms” (Lycra!). With marvelous Mia Cunningham as the drum majorette, the dancers cavorted through the best pep rally ever, as the band rocked out to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, tagged with a final flourish taken from rapper Killer Mike’s “Akshon.” This melding of cultural forms sounds preposterous on paper, but in action it was thrilling. Out of post-modernism’s chaos of deconstructed fragments, moral ambivalence and separatist hostility, Culture has surged to its feet, newly whole — and scores again! When the team is this big-hearted, everyone gets to play — and to win. Let's hope that the NCDT is at the vanguard of a new artistic movement going beyond inclusiveness to true unity.