Review: ‘Green Pieces’ surprises as both a dance and call to action

Review by Zachary Lewis

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Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer

Recycling, saving trees, alternative energy. All turned up in one guise or another Thursday night in “Green Pieces,” surely one of the more unusual dance salons the Amphitheater has ever hosted.

Now get this: it worked. Not every element was convincing or conceptually sound, but a majority of the program managed both to entertain and to ennoble.

Consider this viewer surprised. Dance and politics are far from natural bedfellows. Some might even say they’re incompatible.

On this occasion, however, thanks to choreographers Mark Diamond and Sasha Janes, the mix was palatable at worst and deeply stirring at best, rousing in patrons everything from admiration to genuine ecological awareness.

Serious credit also belongs to the dancers. One of the more athletic, dynamic troupes of its kind, Charlotte Ballet (formerly known as North Carolina Dance Theatre) turned in some truly vivid performances, giving each of the six works on the program its best possible shot at longevity.

Hands down the most affecting was “Tree Hugger,” a short but potent work by Janes that lived up to its name in the most elegant way imaginable. Simple in concept but demanding physically and emotionally, the dance sparked an almost irresistible urge to become the title.

Spoken excerpts from the film “An Inconvenient Truth” set the stage for dancer Anna Gerberich, dressed like a sprite, to leap into the arms of Peter Walker and Joshua Hall, clad like trees in solid brown. From there, to the strains of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” the men proceeded to lift, twirl and enfold Gerberich like a leaf, holding her aloft in a fluid, lyrical embrace.

A close second was “Kinetic Energy,” also by Janes. Only where “Tree Hugger” took the serious, high road, it bid instead on humor, deftly and successfully channeling the zeal of the dancers and one musician into a lighthearted plea for alternative fuels.

Janes himself played the critical role of a jogger on a treadmill, pounding out an ever-faster beat in time with improvisations by pianist David Morse. Six dancers, meanwhile, engaged in relentless, wildly diverse movement and collapsed at the end, proving beyond question that fossils are far from the only source of power in this world.

“Time is of the Essence” also struck a chord. A brief, touching duet by Diamond, the piece transcended its green roots and spoke to all whose harried schedules often stand in the way of their ideals. Dancing to a busy Chopin Scherzo, Hall and Chelsea Dumas rapidly went through the motions of a jam-packed day: eating, sleeping, exercising, always on the fly. Once the music calmed, however, the couple indulged in an intimate duet reflecting their true, mutual passion for environmental causes.

Like the protagonists in “Time,” the remaining three works each fell short of perfect, one way or another. Still, even as each had its flaw, each also had something to recommend it.

Excerpts from “Environment,” an unfinished collaboration between Janes and Diamond, offered little more than tantalizing glimpses of the full work slated for premiere on July 30. Vignettes set to Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge,” the pieces shown Thursday bore no clear link to environmentalism and contained only the promise of a strikingly unconventional dance.

Diamond’s “Higher Consciousness” and “Recycling,” by contrast, were complete but also somehow less than fully satisfying.

The former evoked the Beat Generation with bongo player Lucas Bilbro and five dancers reciting environmental horrors in between short but intense solos. Actual dancing was in short supply. But what dancing there was — agitated, freewheeling, intricate — was of great interest.

“Recycling,” meanwhile, bore little resemblance to a dance at all. Rather, it was primarily a fashion show, a parade of costumes by Erika Diamond pieced together out of found objects.

No complaints on that front. So interesting were Diamond’s creations, so avant-garde and flashy, one might have imagined oneself at a runway in Paris, watching models display the latest collection by some world-class designer. Never has the line between trash and treasure been more blurred.

More like the opening sequence, meanwhile, a brief but poignant solo in which a female dancer dressed as a homeless woman found joy in a valuable object, would have been welcome.

Still, “Recycling” was effective in its way. The virtues and potential of reused materials came across loud and clear, and as the finale to a program about environmental issues, the festive modern kick-line with which it ended drove home the message that when it comes to saving the planet, we’re all in this together.

Zachary Lewis is music critic for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.