Zachary Lewis: North Carolina Dance Theatre opens summer dance season with ‘rich, satisfying program’

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Photos by Lauren Rock.

Zachary Lewis | Guest Critic

Not all ballet dancers can act, but the good ones do so really well. Case in point: North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Thursday night performance.

A feast of strong acting through dance and a generally weighty program, the concert — the first Dance Salon of the 2012 Season — was a brilliant reminder of how special the results can be when an artist not only has a firm grasp on his or her physical duties, but also portrays a credible, interesting character.

The ideal of ballet acting was reached during the second half of the four-part Amphitheater program, in a short but intense scene called “Queen,” by Sasha Janes, associate artistic director of the Charlotte-based company led by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.

Here, dancers Anna Gerberich and Frederick Leo Walker II personified a queen and soldier engaged in a fierce dispute, all with the physicality and showmanship of masters. So compelling were their performances, one almost couldn’t look away.

Gerberich, dressed in a jewel-encrusted robe and crown, played a powerful monarch displeased with an unwilling subject. At first, she entertained — even welcomed — his notions, but always with an air of superiority. Eventually, though, after briefly losing control of her throne, she changed her mind, and brutally dispatched him.

The choreography was explosively athletic. Several times, Walker whipped Gerberich around like a pole, briskly, his partner rigid in his arms. Elsewhere, Gerberich exhibited exceptional flexibility and the forceful manner of someone who always gets and does what she wants.

Long live this “Queen.”

The concept behind “Shelter,” another new work by Janes, was more difficult to discern initially. But what seemed at first like a string of disconnected episodes soon crystallized into a touching depiction of the different, and often vital, roles other people play in our lives.

Dancing with her fellow females to spare piano music by Ólafur Arnalds, and executing an array of nimble maneuvers in and out of synchronization, lead dancer Jamie Dee seemed to find friendship and a kind of innocent frivolity. In two duets with males, however, she discovered raw sensuality and then a long-term partner.

Intimate scenes featuring close, intertwining movements, the latter sequences ranged from the openly suggestive to the joyfully romantic. Yet if the work ended complexly, with Dee being enveloped in the flowing garbs of her colleagues, the most moving portion also was the simplest: Prancing in a circle, arm-in-arm with Gregory DeArmond, Dee bore the smile of someone who has finally met her mate.

“All for Thee,” by contrast, was rather clear from the start. If anything, the choreography by Mark Diamond, associate artistic director of Chautauqua Dance, could have benefited from a little more subtlety. Still, the drama was intriguing enough, and the dancing beautiful.

Two couples, dressed in formal garb, secretly yearned to be free. One pair gradually yielded to their feelings in a moment of tender abandon, only to fall quickly and coldly back in line.

But though the story itself wasn’t all that novel, the journey through it was full of interest. A blend of modern dance and classical ballet, the choreography was highly theatrical and surprising, with a dancer just as likely to make choking motions, cast a longing glance across the floor, express confusion, or fall to the ground in tears as to execute a flawless pirouette.

What’s more, the music — fittingly, the Andante con moto from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet No. 14 — complemented the action perfectly, reflecting the volatility and depth of the emotions at play.

Emotions of this kind were all but absent from “Alternate Paths,” the program’s final work, also crafted by Diamond. Here, in lieu of a dramatic narrative, Diamond took his cues from a lengthy but dynamic score by David Balakrishnan, founder of the famed Turtle Island String Quartet.

For the dancers, following the music meant staying in constant, independent and highly turbulent motion. Diamond’s choreography often placed a great deal of responsibility on the individual, allowing each of the seven performers to express him or herself through personal, almost improvisational gestures. And yet the group also spent a fair amount of time working as a unit, swaying elegantly en masse.

The only flaw in “Alternate Paths” was its length. So many stellar performances notwithstanding, the formless, abstract work said what it needed to say well before Balakrishnan himself did.

Not every work can be a masterpiece. But North Carolina Dance Theatre and its choreographers put together a rich, satisfying program in an incredibly short period. Moreover, with only eight dancers, the burden on each was heavy. But there’s no acting, no falsehood behind this last statement: they all bore it with distinction.

Lewis is music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.

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