Review: A cool evening at the Ballet

Guest Review by: Steve Sucato

Last week’s blistering heatwave gave way to a coolness Wednesday night at the Amphitheater for Charlotte Ballet’s annual “Dance Innovations” program. That coolness was not only indicative of the temperature, but of an atmosphere created by each of the four diverse contemporary ballet works on the program.

The two-hour program began with two ballets by Charlotte Ballet Associate Artistic Director Sasha Janes.

The first, “Utopia” was Janes’ “Mad Men”-inspired ballet the company debuted at Chautauqua in 2013. Like the popular TV series, Janes’ mini-story ballet told of a philandering husband (Josh Hall) who cheats on his devoted young wife (Elizabeth Truell) with his alluring secretary (Sarah Hayes Harkins).

The ballet juxtaposed this backdrop of betrayal and heartache with a selection of mostly rosy songs from the 1950s. The tunes such as Patience and Prudence’s “Tonight, You Belong To Me,” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” served as themes for the main characters’ personas.

Truell was wonderfully convincing as the young wife who fawned over her husband while trying to ignore his overt disdain for her. She brushed lint off his suit, gave him his hat, briefcase and a kiss before sending him off to the office, all the while Hall’s unfeeling character pushed her away both physically and emotionally.

Janes employed a more contemporary movement language in “Utopia” than has been seen in his ballets. This was brought to full effect in an animated and fitful solo by Hall, who celebrated his freedom from his wife at work by literally jumping for joy and dancing to The Platters’ “The Great Pretender.” Hall rolled through a succession of flailing arms, stuttering hip swivels and cracking hand claps while suppressing any hint of guilt over his callous actions that dared bubble to the surface.

Hayes Harkins then sent pulses racing as the sexy secretary whose seductive shimmy-shakes and revealing cleavage took control over Hall and his overheated libido.

It was the chilling slam of telephone receiver in his wife’s ear and her guttural, anguished scream during a psychiatrist visit that brought home the ballet’s true power; that of revealing the dispirited longing of Truell’s character for a return to the loving husband she thought she married and her delusion at thinking that if she loved him hard enough, he would again be that man.

A reprise of Janes’ ballet “Queen,” performed Week Five as part of “An Evening of Pas De Deux,” came next. The medieval tale of a young queen whose champion no longer wished to serve her was inspired by singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega’s 1985 tune, “The Queen and the Soldier.”  Set to a score by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, the pas de deux was danced by Charlotte Ballet’s newest star, Chelsea Dumas, and dancer David Morse. It told of a soldier sick of war who lays down his bow before his young queen. Using a mix of seduction and intimidation, the queen tries in vain to change his mind. At one point, Morse’s character pushed Dumas to the ground and seated himself on her throne with her throwing herself at his feet. The tables quickly turned, however, with her first dragging him submissively around by his nostrils and then, convinced she could not change his mind, coldly killing him with his own bow and arrow.

For his part, Janes’ only failing in “Queen” was that he had the two characters tussling back-and-forth a bit too much, repeating this one motif in a number of iterations. In the end, however, it was the passionate performances by Dumas as the sensual, strong and cunning young queen and Morse as the determined soldier, along with some daring partnered lifts — including one with Dumas’ legs up and out and like the second hand of a clock ticking down — that helped make the ballet a success.

During an extended program pause, Charlotte Ballet Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Associate Artistic Director Patricia McBride, and staff of the Chautauqua School of Dance paid tribute to retiring Vice President and Director of Programming Marty Merkley for his 25-years of  support of dance at Chautauqua.

Next, Charlotte Ballet II Program Director Mark Diamond’s semi-autobiographical “Path” told of a troubled, non-conformist young man (Hall), who was bullied and ostracized by his family and society for being different.

While Diamond’s intentions to spotlight the sometimes cruel nature of humans were admirable, “Path” tended to spoon-feed the bleak images of the protagonist’s life in a disappointingly obvious way. Voiceovers of the young man’s family in turmoil berating him with taunts of “idiot,” “screw-up” and “why can’t you be like everyone else,” color-coded conformist, non-conformist costumes and glaring emotional wrenching — not to mention mostly lackluster choreography — left this ballet sorely lacking in what Diamond has shown he is quite capable of in the past: moments of beauty, inspiration and poignancy.

The program closed with Charlotte Ballet resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden’s “Peace Piece.” Set to an eclectic mix of piano and choral music, the ballet for four men and four women, was, said Rhoden in earlier interview about it, “his reaction” to the chaotic environment seen in the news recently. While Diamond’s “Path” took an obvious thematic route, Rhoden’s ballet was more veiled in its thematic approach.

The ballet began with its eight dancers forming a huddle center stage under spotlight. The dancers then broke off into pairs with the women and men along gender lines, launching into sharp, angular unison movement phrases. The choreography for the ballet was not as ravenous in the dancer’s movements, eating up space as in other Rhoden ballets, but was nonetheless “cool” and visually impactful. Rhoden’s signature off-kilter, long-limbed stretching, sleek and chic movement style was especially powerful in several moving pas de deuxs toward the end of the ballet. Adroitly danced by Charlotte Ballet’s performers, “Peace Piece” struck a meaningful chord with the audience, who rose to their feet in applause at its conclusion.

Based in Painesville, Ohio, Steve Sucato is a contributing writer, critic and reporter. His work has appeared in such publications as The Buffalo News, Erie Times-News and Dance Magazine — among others.

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