Review by Jane Vranish
Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Charlotte Ballet (formerly North Carolina Dance Theatre) built its reputation on George Balanchine’s nimble neoclassical lines, filtered through the combined joie de vivre of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride.
The pair then introduced Dwight Rhoden to the mix, himself a proponent of Alvin Ailey’s generous audience appeal in the modern dance idiom. During his foray into contemporary ballet, both with Charlotte and his own company, Complexions, he took the Balanchine style to new extremes, refracting the dance into a prism of colorful moves.
That was more than 20 ballets ago.
But the Rhoden effect was never clearer than in Wednesday night’s Dance Innovations at the Amphitheater. Along with Sasha Janes and Mark Diamond, these three choreographers have created a definitive style for the Charlotte company.
At its best, this very attractive group is bold but never brassy, where the dancers like to tap an unending ribbon of excitement for the audience. And while the dancers have an undeniable foundation in ballet, they extract contemporary serpentine moves that both explode like spitfire and explore new territory in a rich dance continuum.
By now, there are some things that are akin to each other, where the performers may slide into a position, whirl in spiraling variations of pirouettes and, above all, relish daring lifts — the inevitable result of cross-fertilization.
Mr. Rhoden, whose movement takes its inspiration from an inner, highly complex rhythm, was represented this time by “Sit In, Stand Out,” a tribute to the civil rights movement and enhanced by photos of the time. One read, “Everybody wants freedom!” Another said, “Discrimination is not Christian.”
They were familiar, yet still haunting and always necessary to serve as a reminder.
The dancers used chairs that might have been bus seats, a food counter for blacks only or church pews to gather and mourn. They also staged their own sit-in.
The ballet was divided into three segments: “Active,” “Activate” and “Activism.” They gradually escalated, mostly driven by Max Roach’s dangerous percussive score, interspersed with snippets of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches and, at one point, burning crosses and piercing screams, all of which climaxed with Nina Simone’s lynching song, “Strange Fruit.”
Yearning arabesques were replaced by flailing arms, even during leaps. There was no holding back in this ballet and no mistaking its message.
Mr. Diamond opened the program with “There Again Not Slowly,” an uninhibited dance club piece that is one of his best. Mr. Diamond usually concentrates on theatrics and drama. But here that meant a dazzling necklace of cool moves — Anna Gerberich’s hard-hitting, almost rap-natured solo to open, then twizzles and pirouettes spinning from the heel — sometimes at the expense of a more taut movement structure where signature moves bind things together.
Nonetheless, the dancers were able to let loose and enjoy, much to the delight of the audience.
For balance, Mr. Janes offered the purity of “Chaconne,” set to the final movement of Bach’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D minor (for those interested, it was the Hilary Hahn version).
This was a challenge, since the work is generally regarded as one of the finest musical compositions ever produced. Sometimes that can overshadow the choreography.
But Mr. Janes has an inherently musical style that captured the rapture of the phrasing, the ebb and flow. It was something that obviously inspired the dancers, who unequivocally attached themselves to each moment. So the men were strong and clean here, the women sometimes walking on air (with their unwavering assistance), a melding of the arts.
Kudos to the company for bringing a black ribbon backdrop that allowed for an unusual exploration of entrances — sometimes an arm or a leg — and exits that could swallow the performers whole. Although it could have used a black curtain behind it instead of the blue cloth that stretched across the back, the ribbons were still impressive.
With that, plus the emotional photographic slideshow from “Sit In, Stand Out” and more complex lighting that cast mysterious shadows, this program set a new technical standard for Chautauquan dance programming.
It all continued into the finale, a world premiere and collaborative effort that, with projects like The Romeo & Juliet Project last year and Go West! last week, is becoming a compelling way to set Chautauqua apart. This time, it was A Far Cry, a talented, Boston-based string ensemble of 18 young professional musicians who impressed Chautauquans two years ago and were wisely invited back for an encore performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” with the Charlotte Ballet.
Mr. Janes and Mr. Diamond served as co-choreographers for the piece, which was given the title “Environment,” a topic the company revisits regularly and so appropriate given Chautauqua’s surroundings.
Although the work was originally an 11-movement depiction of Mr. Bridge’s personality, arch with British whimsy and wit, most of it could translate to elements of nature — like clouds, water and like — although not with any specificity.
The main interest lay in the seesaw participation of the musical Mr. Janes and the theatrical Mr. Diamond for this pièce d’occasion. Conceivably, it was Mr. Diamond’s contribution to use a large white rectangular skirt worn by a young Mother Earth figure. That set a heavenly, billowing atmosphere, although the performers could have kept the hemline of the skirt closer to the floor so that the audience could not see any other dancers.
It had charm during Ms. Gerberich’s abundant swirling solo and a reflective intimacy in the duet for Sarah Hayes Harkins and Pete Leo Walker, although the comedic jumble of the Rossini-esque Italian section and fluttering swan parody fell flat.
On the whole, the give-and-take between Mr. Janes and Mr. Diamond segued with a surprising fluidity. And when Mother Earth was lifted in the final tableaux, this “Environment” encompassed a poetic nature all its own.
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 pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.