NCDT shows ‘spirited athleticism’ in making dance innovations

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Photos by Lauren Rock.

Jane Vranish | Guest Reviewer
There was plenty of pickin’ and strummin’ amid the pirouettes Wednesday night as North Carolina Dance Theatre and Greasy Beans tickled each other’s fancy for some “Dance Innovations” at the Amphitheater.

But before the company served up Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s party-hearty “Shindig,” members of NCDT’s resident stable of choreographers took their turn with a pair of ballets that opened the program on a more solemn note.

Mark Diamond’s “How Do I Love Thee” held the promise of romance, built on the enduringly famous relationships between two 19th-century couples: Robert and Clara Schumann, and Elizabeth (Barrett) and Robert Browning.

It actually was quite fascinating that the poet (1806–1861) and the composer (1810–1856) forged their careers about the same time and would provide the foundation for the piece. The two couples wore microphones to deliver sporadic lines from Barrett Browning’s cherished love sonnet. But it all might have worked better if the text were part of the soundtrack, for the microphones, which had to be turned on and off during the performance, fell prey to miscues, with some words lost in the process.

There was no doubt about the allure of Schumann’s score, so urgent and ardent, so innovative and insightful. But Diamond’s choreography had a mixmaster of choreographic elements, sometimes venturing on the poetic, other times, however, possessing a contemporary sculptural quality that looked awkward. Rarely did it succumb to Schumann’s inherent Romanticism.

In fact, the couples — Melissa Anduiza and Frederick Leo Walker II, and Jamie Dee and David Morse — never truly connected, partly because Diamond created a series of solos at the beginning.

When they finally began to dance together, there was a wonderful series of fleeting handholds that encapsulated the overall ambiance. But it was too little, too late.

Sasha Janes gave his dancers a “Last Lost Chance,” burdened, however, with a heavy-duty title that suggested a grim outcome. But this “chance” had a serious beauty all of its own.

Part of that was due to Janes’ vocabulary choices, primarily centered around variations on pedaling — in the air, bicycling, backpedaling. That emanated from a single source, an invisible precipice that the dancers would approach with trepidation, giving the work a dangerous overtone.

Ólafur Arnalds, an Icelandic composer who has worked with British choreographer Wayne McGregor, contributed an austere but scintillating backdrop as Janes inserted running circles and asymmetrical but seamless entrances and exits, keeping interest high.

The music began to escalate during a driving violin solo where a male duo for Jordan Leeper and Walker highlighted a physicality and phrasing that had much in common. Then Arnalds reached back to his hardcore band roots to support the sense of urgency and fear Janes might have had in mind.

This is where dance is headed in general: a spirited athleticism — although the presence of hyperactive choreographer Dwight Rhoden on the staff might also play a part in infiltrating the movement in this piece — apparently created to grab the audience’s attention with more and more difficult steps and partnering.

But that is what NCDT does so well — uses its power and enthusiasm to engage its audience, much like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. When it works, there is nothing more exhilarating. And that brings us back to “Shindig.”

This is one of Bonnefoux’s best pieces and probably his most popular. It is always performed to live music — in this case to the all-natural, real-deal bluegrass band Greasy Beans. The group must have had a terrific standalone concert Monday evening, because the audience was ready to clap along from the start.

As it so happened, there was a little room in the program, so the audience got a bonus: a mini-concert from leaders Josh Haddix, guitar and vocals, and Charley Brophey, mandolin and vocals, and some “friends” on fiddle, banjo and bass.

They sounded like they had played together for years — comfortable with the pace of a Southern drawl but armed with plenty of musical chops for the toe-tappin’ and prancin’ speeds.

The audience was already primed when Haddix filled them in on the backstory of “Shindig,” how musicians steeped in contradancin’, buck dancin’ and cloggin’ got a call from Bonnefoux.

“Wow — French cloggers!” he exclaimed.

Then he heard the word “ballet” and figured that “this fella’s got the wrong group — they were ballet, and we were bluegrass.”

Maybe they don’t generally cross paths, but the stars definitely were in alignment when “Shindig” was created. By the end of Haddix’s story, the audience was more than geared up, so much so that they erupted into more rhythmic clapping as the dancers bounced on with the kind of energy found in a high school pep rally.

It never let up.

Now, it must be noted that George Balanchine combined Baroque music and classical ballet with American folk rhythms in “Square Dance” back in 1957. Do-si-do. Développé. Swing your partner. Brisés. The original was even designed with a caller, although that aspect has since disappeared.

“Shindig” has a personality and pace all its own, though — a whirligig of a dance with coltish prances to drive it along. Bonnefoux had the dancers twirling under and over in dizzying formation but then transferred that to supported pirouettes which changed direction.

Ballerinas generally don’t sit back on their heels, but they had some chaine turns in that style. And then they occasionally sashayed about, although Sarah Hayes Watson took time to throw in some double (and maybe a triple) fouettes. The men responded with some honest-to-goodness clogging of their own to set up some spectacular feats of balletic derring-do.

There was a competitive pas de quatre, with Dee teasing Addul Manzano, Morse and Leeper, and a charming pas de deux for Anna Gerberich and Walker right before the finale.

And just when you thought it was all over, there was an encore with some well-deserved bows thrown into the mix. The audience, virtually giddy by then, stood on their feet, while a few opted to pound on the pews, perhaps a first in the annals of ballet.

Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contibuting writer. Her stories can be read on the dance blog “Cross Currents” at

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