REVIEW — A ‘Visionary Atmosphere’: NCDT dancers, choreographers, show off creative side of dance with ‘Innovations’

Benjamin Hoste | Staff PhotographerDancers from North Carolina Dance Theatre in Residence perform Mark Diamond’s “Alternate Paths” during the company’s Wednesday evening “Dance Innovations” performance in the Amphitheater.

Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer

Dancers from North Carolina Dance Theatre in Residence perform Mark Diamond’s “Alternate Paths” during the company’s Wednesday evening “Dance Innovations” performance in the Amphitheater.

Guest review by Jane Vranish

Choreography is like the air that dancers breathe.

That is a big plus for the audiences here, knowing that North Carolina Dance Theatre treats these historical and beautifully groomed grounds like a dance laboratory, where they can see world premieres (or sneak peeks) of the company’s ever-growing repertory.

It benefits the dancers as well. Nurtured by no less than four choreographers on staff, they get to participate in the creative side of dance, instead of learning steps that have been fashioned for someone else. They have the opportunity give the dance a fresh breadth, confidently knowing that a role will fit them like a glove. And the best choreographers offer the dancers not only a chance to think, but, in giving them a selected vocabulary, a chance to grow technically.

So “Dance Innovations,” the latest choreographic collaboration on tap at the Amphitheater Wednesday, symbolized the overall visionary atmosphere both at Chautauqua itself and at NCDT, with two works that premiered last season, NCDT2 program director Mark Diamond’s “Alternate Paths” and associate artistic director Sasha Jane’s “Shelter,”  and a third, resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden’s “The Groove,” that debuted in North Carolina last October.

With the three works constructed in a more abstract vein, it was easy to see how they shared a highly physical approach to the choreography, particularly the lifts, which swirled upside down and backwards in breathtaking fashion. However one lift, an  inverted split that stood out on its own, oddly made an appearance in all three pieces and there was an overall tendency for the dense nature of the movements to run together by the end of the night.

Still “Alternate Paths” was one of Mr. Diamond’s better works, smartly linked to a wonderfully textured score by David Balakrishnan of Turtle Island Quartet fame that blended Americana folk with Middle Eastern idioms.

Mr. Diamond could have really mined this rich source material, a major part of his own dance background, like Mark Morris does with linking arms, large circular patterns and a sense of camaraderie. But Mr. Diamond only alluded to the ethnic base with a few flexed feet, preferring to keep it abstract and contemporary.

For the most part, his work was based on a grounded sculptural design, somewhat Grahamesque, but with a supported “air walk” for a ballerina, resembling the one that George Balanchine made famous in “The Unanswered Question” from “Ivesiana” (1954), for contrast.

Sarah Hayes Watson established an intuitive sense of weight from the start with a solo that captured the attention by virtue of its juicy, curling phrases. Although subsequent movements centered around other women, their “Paths” were not as firmly delineated.

Despite only three years into his choreographic milieu, Mr. Janes continued on a roll this summer, with a number of works that are beginning to show a considerable range. He turned to a dramatic thread for last season’s premiere, “Shelter,” which centered around the growth of an individual within a community, once again using the atmospheric sounds of Ólafur Arnalds that he employed so well in “Last Lost Chance.”

Jamie Dee brought a real integrity to this piece, which followed her journey between the internal and external connections of life. Along the way she had two encounters with men, one a curious, exploratory duet with Pete Walker and then a more exhilarating relationship with Jordan Leeper.

She also danced with a trio of women, presumably friends. Here the women began to manipulate their unisex costumes, anchored with billowing culottes, as if butterfly wings. And at the end, when Ms. Dee joined her community once more, changed presumably for the better, the dancers stretched the costumes around her to became the “shelter” itself. Or was it a cocoon, to be again reborn?

The evening finished in “The Groove,” another of Mr. Rhoden’s sleekly designed dances. This one slithered out of “house” music, a pulsing relative of disco and techno styles.

Dressed in skin-baring black leotards and shorts, the dancers meandered around the floor before two found the spotlight.

Reach out and touch. “Your love is so rare …”

That initial move quickly grew into club dancing on steroids, with no-nonsense hip action from the start. The women preened as they strutted around en pointe, as if in a pair of stilettos. And there were plenty of directional twists and turns, arms deliciously intertwined in pretzel formations mirroring disco.

The incessant beat served two functions. First of all, it drove the dance, inspiring rhythmic clapping at the end from the audience. But never one to wallow in the mundane, Mr. Rhoden cleverly played with the phrasing, using hot, steamy syncopation as well as sustained adagio movements, like the lyrics floating over it all.

The dancers took it higher and further, especially a charismatic Pete Walker, who could easily bust a move or pop a balletic jump. They are part of a new breed — hungry to dance, happy to satisfy an audience — that is in the process of altering dance as we know it. The evening belonged to them.

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

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