Review: Pas de Deux highlights dancers’ versatility

Review by Anthony Bannon

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Charlotte Ballet’s Amanda Smith, Chelsea Dumas and Elizabeth Truell dance to Prince and the Revolution’s “Baby I’m a Star” during “An Evening of Pas de Deux” in the Amphitheater Wednesday.

The pas de deux tradition at Chautauqua has become a highlight demo for the Charlotte Ballet, the long-time resident dance company here, and what a night — oh, what a night it was — with 10 sample experiences by eight choreographers for 12 dancers the Institution is privileged to call neighbors each summer.

Bookended by statue-ready classics, two clusters of contemporary dance pieces more or less made for two performers provided opportunity for the company’s talented resident choreographers, Mark Diamond and Sasha Janes, to show again just how inventive their work can be.

But there were two concessions.

The Charlotte Ballet has been one of the stalwarts that steadies the barricade against an American culture increasingly exhausted, deconstructed and so filled with appropriations that it is usually ill fit to create new expression. Two dances in the program played just that weakness — one a hackneyed spectacle of a hokey death sword fight for two men, followed by a chorus line for three women just released from a do-it-yourself social media class on sexploitation, only a little short of pandering sex and violence motion imaging.

Real stuff, as if an antidote, followed these lapses, and that was the work of Dwight Rhoden, a guest choreographer for the company who also is director and co-founder of Complexions, a highly regarded New York dance company.

To the music of Nina Simone, Rhoden shared an excerpt from his “Sit In, Stand Out,” which featured Sarah Hayes Harkins and Joshua Hall in a nightclub tryst that revealed the violent underbelly of carnal attraction, rendered here by two dancers who put their bodies at the same risk as do the truths they staged. Emotionally and physically reckless, Rhoden’s excerpts shouted for more exposition. Perhaps next year, in full.

Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s programming bandaged the circumstance by concluding with a traditional Bolshoi finale, Asaf Messerer’s spectacle pas de deux called “Spring Waters.” It is a bold statement of early 20th century expressionism in still-classical clothing — two dancers abandoned to one another with confidence. Two amazing dives by the company virtuoso, Anna Gerberich, sealed the deal. She is a waif soaring horizontally — suddenly launching into the arms of the powerful Pete Leo Walker. His leaps, his lifts, afforded a monumental root force to Gerberich’s flower-like presence, and the spectacle of Messerer’s work prompted the audience to its feet, as Walker held Gerberich tall above his head, an exiting-right sculpture, more than 10 feet high across the Amphitheater stage, to end the night.

After the applause fades, the memory of Gerberich and Harkins occasion the thought that dance occurs in parallel to gardens: A colorful, if not strange idea, but both are, in fact, colorful, strange and based in time and design. The one changes as audience moves through it; the other grows as it moves before the audience.

And here is one more related notion: Beautifully graced ballerinas usually summon birds or winds as metaphors to describe their excellence. But flowers grow out of the fingers of these ladies, and their arms, appearing every which way they shouldn’t be, are like vines that can hold, twine or choke in a moment. Gardens are their places.

The pas de deux tradition samples and highlights and demonstrates the character and range of the company: Yes, different ethnicities, sizes and shapes, but different and delightful idiosyncrasies, too. Gerberich and Harkins can do just about anything: straight-up classics with poise and élan, and then they turn to eccentric, playful, political postmodern funk, too. What they do out there … be confident: These two could appear as a new species with just a bit more rehearsal.

And how about the sassy ebullience of Amanda Smith and the spunky innocence of Elizabeth Truell? These are fine young dancers, but they are role players, too, and they give a nifty identity to the group.

Watch for Jordan Leeper; he holds himself in the air somehow that extra second, so smooth and effortlessly.

Addul Manzano is not a big man, but he fills up the stage as if his body were Pavarotti’s voice. He far out- dons the Quixote in the celebrated Marius Petipa Don Quixote, a centerpiece of Imperial St. Petersburg Ballet. His pose as the Don enlarges the space around him, and his balance allows Gerberich to slither down his leg in a renowned move that is like a diving fish.

If Jean-Paul Sartre were alive, he would write a draining existential psychodrama for David Morse and Chelsea Dumas, who have nearly finished a dictionary of poses which mime the world-weary dimming of life’s lights, and they make it delightful. Morse maintained a droll elderly character even during final bows. The piece is called “UHH!,” choreographed by Mark Diamond, and I expect it is to be pronounced as if it is a groan. Diamond has nailed the ribbon to the wall with this and the partner existential paean for hipsters — jive, too cool, retro hipsters with Amanda Smith and Ben Ingel. That piece, only a few minutes long, is called “City South,” and the two lit up the audience.

Bonnefoux took a turn at a choreography for Coppélia with a nod to his mentor George Balanchine, late of New York City Ballet, where Bonnefoux starred with his associate director, Patricia McBride.

Sasha Janes choreographed little set pieces called “Playground Teasers” and Truell and Leeper appeared in the pas de deux fragment that remains of the August Bournonville “Flower Festival in Genzano” from the 19th century.

So what about the pas de deux, anyway?

Someone said it is French.

Besides that, the pas de deux also — and most significantly — is central to dance, for it creates a four-part tradition for coupling, for individual solo work and for a coda to wrap it all up with a flourish. The arrangement drifts today, like language and culture, but the pas de deux remains a showcase for a company as well as an inadvertent barometer of our times — maybe a little like figuring out just how many variations on a family one can name.

Anthony Bannon is executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State, where he also serves as research professor. He formerly was the dance and theater critic for The Buffalo News, and studied with the late Selma Jeanne Cohen at the former American Dance Congress.