Tag Archives: Dwight Rhoden

The Electoral College in Elementary School

Reviews of Grace for President and Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve been favored with a couple of Grace shows from Children’s Theatre over the years. There were two productions of Amazing Grace, a charming but trifling little piece, in 1999 and 2005. Before the encore, there was the incomparably richer Boundless Grace, deeply infused with African rhythms and culture, that won Creative Loafing’s Show of the Year laurels in 2000.

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So for those of you who recall those pre-ImaginOn productions, it may be important to emphasize that there’s no kinship between them and the current world premiere of Grace for President through November 6. Mary Hoffman created the previous Grace, of Gambian descent, in a series of books that depicted her heroine with playacting impulses rather than political ambitions. Grace Campbell is a more recent brainchild by Kelly DiPucchio, slightly browner in LeUyen Pham’s illustrations than her Woodrow Wilson Elementary teacher, Mrs. Barrington, but never assigned to an ethnic group.

From the first page on, DiPucchio’s Grace is more about feminism than racial pride. Mrs. Barrington brings a poster to class at the start of the school year with all the US presidents on it, and Grace asks, “Where are the GIRLS?” After getting the lowdown, Grace stews at her desk momentarily before announcing that she would like to be president. Despite the snickers from several of Grace’s classmates, Mrs. Barrington deems this impromptu ambition to be a “star-spangled idea” – clear proof that DiPucchio intended her story as a musical all along.

Clocking in at 57 minutes, Joan Cushing’s adaptation actually expands upon DiPucchio’s slender volume, with a robust – and resourceful – song list. When Grace starts campaigning against Thomas Cobb, the nominee from Mr. Waller’s class, Grace and Thomas sing in debate-like counterpoint, not harmony, each candidate spouting a separate line. And while it’s doubly lamentable that a two-party system is axiomatic in this story and that genders represent the party lines, when the guys sing “Boys Boys Boys,” it rings like a barbershop quartet.

Cushing does churn out some pabulum along the way in explaining what elections are, but she bravely follows in DiPucchio’s footsteps in trying to explicate that grim Founding Fathers albatross, the Electoral College. We skim over some fairly muddy waters when Barrington and Waller establish a system where each of their students represents one of the states, unevenly weighting their votes.

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The outcome partly redresses the inequity. Cobb seems to have a lock on the election because the boys hold the majority of the electoral votes. Our intrepid heroine therefore comes up with a platform designed to change some minds, listening to her classmates while Cobb mainly coasts. Party lines have held fast when we reach the end of the roll call of states, so the election is still up for grabs as Sam, representing Wyoming, gets set to cast his measly three electoral votes.

“My vote counts!” Sam sings out, an epiphany yet to be reached by millions of unlikely American voters.

I won’t tip the results of this suspenseful election, but I’ll credit set designer Anita J. Tripathi with heightening the tension by dropping down an electronic scoreboard over her gallery of presidents to give us a running total of electoral votes until the confetti moment when the shunned wallflower Sam makes his decision. We’re supposed to greet the result with jubilation, but overall, the students of Woodrow Wilson Elementary are even more set in their voting patterns than adult Americans.

Although director Michelle Long pilots the most polished production I can remember at Wells Fargo Playhouse (the smaller ImaginOn theater), I found myself fighting the notion that this wasn’t really a Charlotte production. Most of the seven-member cast is new to the Charlotte scene, all except one are making their first 2016 appearance, and all the designers seem to be making their Uptown debuts.

Youngsters shouldn’t have any problem warming up to Talia Robinson as Grace. Her sunny optimism in launching her campaign is only slightly clouded by the prospect of opposition, and Robinson’s attitude toward her classmates usefully blends the callings of public service and leadership. After starring last December in the title role of another Cushing world premiere, Ella’s Big Chance,  Margaret Dalton as Mrs. Barrington is the most familiar face we encounter. She gives us that ideal teacher we never had, not only radiating energy and encouragement but also drawing inspiration from her pupils’ ideas.

The other Ella alum in the cast, Sean Powell, infuses Thomas Cobb with a patrician smugness as he initially intimidates Grace, singing his own praises in “My Accomplishments.” Until the denouement, Powell keeps the concept of doing for others totally alien to Thomas. Shivam Patel’s debut as the outcast Sam is as impressive as Robinson’s, for suffering often has deeper roots than righteous indignation. While Grace is affirming that girls can now win as never before, Patel makes Sam’s discovery that he matters just as heartfelt and liberating.

While the script is intended to remain serviceable for election years to come, there was one aspect of this world premiere bears the fresh fingerprint of 2016. A couple of errors that were noted in the Observer review on Friday morning had been expunged from the script by the time I attended the Saturday afternoon performance. Politicians may resent fact-checking during their hotly contested 2016 races, but playwrights and theatre directors evidently don’t.

 

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As Charlotte Ballet launched its 2016-17 season, the final season for Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux as president and artistic director, one thing became very evident during the Fall Works program: Bonnefoux’s successor won’t need to do any rebuilding. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much energy expended by so many dancers so brilliantly. Five of the 18 dancers we saw are new to the troupe this year, and one – a soloist! – was recruited from Charlotte Ballet II, the company’s apprentice ensemble.

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When we first saw Dwight Rhoden’s rousing paean to 80s club culture, The Groove, kicking off the 2012-13 season at Knight Theater, it was almost exhausting to watch at the end of that program. This year, it led off the evening in the you-ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet slot, no less astonishing in its unflagging exuberance than it was before. Surely newcomers to Charlotte Ballet performances must have been wondering how they could follow such a barrage of fast-paced bravura.

Those of us who had seen Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 at Spoleto Festival USA had no such worries. Part of the wildly varied suite came to Charleston when Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company made its Spoleto debut in 2007. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brought the full suite to Spoleto in 2012 – shortly after their stopover at Knight Theater!

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The spectacular core of the work is Naharin’s setting for the traditional Passover seder song, “Echad Mi Yode’a,” in a frenzied recording by The Tractor’s Revenge. It’s a song that cycles to 13 in much the same way that stanzas to “The 12 Days of Christmas” expand. Instead of ending with a “partridge in a pear tree,” each of the Hebrew stanzas concludes with “our One God in the heavens and the earth.”

Naharin sits 18 dancers in semi-circle before us, all of them clad in black suits, white shirts, and black fedoras, emblematic of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews. Each time we reach the end of a stanza, 17 of the dancers rise to their feet in a prayerful wave that sweeps the group from left to right. The eighteenth dancer catapults himself to the floor in an epic flop, as if shot from a cannon – or flung from the explosion of a terrorist bomb.

Each number draws a new signature movement from Naharin as the stanzas grow longer. Each stanza ends with the same wave and explosion as we proceed toward 13, all the dancers returning to their chairs to start each stanza. What I called the “regimented hysteria” of Naharin’s choreography is compounded as we draw closer toward the end, for the “black hat” Hasidim do the unthinkable: they begin throwing more and more of their clothing into the air until all their outer garments – from hats to shoes – lie in a chaotic pile in front of them. Unforgettable.

One of my grandfathers was a Hasid. I’m certain that if I’d seen him in his underwear, I would have been cast straight down into Gehenna.

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Yet the suite began innocuously – and comically – with Maurice Mouzon Jr. from Ballet II standing in front of the stage at intermission, morphing from motionlessness to tentative dancing to bodacious acrobatics before the ensemble’s prelude to the core ritual. Things lightened up immediately after the mass rending of garments, with a bouquet of Harold Arlen songs and some truly hilarious – and spontaneous – hijinks with Dean Martin’s “Sway” as the prime backdrop.

All of the troupe came out into the audience and chose partners whom they led onto the Knight stage. A block party broke out with a cornucopia of delights: sensuousness, grace, shyness, awkwardness, and hambone scene-stealing were all abundantly on display. Nor was the fun finished when patrons were sent back to their seats and the dancers took their bows. The crimson curtain kept rising and falling, each blackout hatching a new zany tableau.

Not all of the hambone came from the amateurs, that’s for sure.

Ballet’s Last Dance Ranges from Grief to Orgy

Dance Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Finishing Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s penultimate year as artistic director, Charlotte Ballet served up an evening of Spring Works that carved a graceful arc from sorrow to celebration. Musically, the program could be described as all-American, though sticklers would consider that a stretch. Resident choreographer Sasha Janes’s We Danced Through Life, premiered at Chautauqua last summer, is set to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” written in 1893 while the Czech composer was living in America.

No ambiguity about music that followed. George Balanchine’s Who Cares? was set to a sheaf of Gershwin tunes when it premiered in 1970, pared down to eight selections by associate artistic director Patricia McBride, who introduced three of the original 17 pieces back in the days when she was a star of the New York City Ballet. Capping the evening was the world premiere of Dwight Rhoden’s Bop Doo Wah, danced to eight jazz standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Louis Prima, Irving Berlin, and George Benson.

Although Janes scrapped the opening movement of “New World” in condensing it to 20 minutes, he retained a fast-slow-fast (or dense-light-dense) structure by tucking the lovely Largo second movement – and its memorable “Goin’ Home” tune – in between the third movement Molto vivace and the concluding Allegro. That showcased the fearless elegance of Sarah Hayes Harkins in an achingly tender pas de deux with David Morse, along with a move I’d never seen before.

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Starting from upstage right and running diagonally toward downstage center, Harkins took one of those leaps that flings a ballerina’s arms and legs out parallel to the floor an instant before a sure-handed guy catches her in midair. But there was no guy standing there to catch Harkins in Janes’s choreography. Instead, two guys somehow overtook her and caught her two arms at the same moment, one under each arm.

Clearly, Harkins and Morse were the tragic couple Janes had in mind as his most pointed evocation of Terrie Valle Hauck, who commissioned the dance at Chautauqua for her late husband Jimmy – particularly at that instant when Morse wasn’t there to catch his partner. But another couple shone in the outer movements, Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall, amid busier action with four other couples. At the end of one set of lifts, the men didn’t put their partners down on the ground. Instead they maintained their lifts and trotted upstage, placing each woman on her own pedestal.

Well done, Jimmy!

Aside from McBride, James and her pink flapper dress was the living link between this presentation of Who Cares? and the company’s previous revival in 2008. She’s still musical and precise in “The Man I Love,” her duet with Hall, and she’s still youthfully jazzy in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” the other piece that McBride originated. There was a tinge of poetry in the title tune, Jamie Dee Clifton’s duet with Hall, and a touch of Fred-and-Ginger sophistication in “Embraceable You,” the Hall-Harkins pairing.

I just felt that this Balanchine was unnecessarily musty compared to the newer pieces bookending it. Couldn’t we get a recording of Hershey Kay’s orchestrations that sounded like they were recorded in stereo, let alone digitally? And the costumes, recreated by Aimee J. Coleman, could stand a refresh. Clifton’s looked like it should have been discarded five washings ago, and Harkins’ – when cutie pie Anna Gerberich danced “My One and Only” eight years ago, it was teal, but now it seemed faded to turquoise.

Yep, it’s challenging to nitpick a Charlotte Ballet program. Everyone is so damn good, but in Rhoden’s Bop Doo Wah, we could lament seeing Addul Manzano, David Morse and Gregory Taylor for the last time. While I wasn’t particularly impressed with his singer, Gloria Reuben (more different in her interpretations than delightful), guitarist Marty Ashby’s jazz band could definitely swing and bop. But come on, man: “Teenie’s Blues,” ostensibly written by trombonist Jay Ashby, had more of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Oop Bop Sh’Bam” than anything else.

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That’s why the tune stood up to those that surrounded it, Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” The piece intensified with Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” as James partnered with Morse and Harkins reconnected with Hall, and “How High the Moon,” one of five pieces set by Rhoden for the full cast of 16, fired up with an alto sax solo that I considered the best of the whole suite.

With James partnering Morse one last time, the full cast turned it up another notch as the women let their hair down for Benson’s “My Latin Brother.” But Rhoden knows the value of turning up the intensity to its fullest when his dancers ought to be nearing exhaustion. That’s what a dance orgy is, and Louis Prima’s classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” was the perfect vehicle to take us there, arranged to evoke the Benny Goodman band’s landmark 1939 invasion of Carnegie Hall – and the legendary set of LPs that emerged from it.

Instrumental solo followed instrumental solo in this epic performance, with the guys, previously clad in punkish black costumes by Christine Darch, adding on matching androgynous skirts as they intensified the furious celebration. Not the way Manzano envisioned ending his career, I’m sure – his was the only farewell performance signaling retirement – but he looked as hot as ever in his valedictory appearance. Darch’s costumes for the women were equally sensuous, but due to the shifting hues of Michael Korsch’s lighting design, I never could determine exactly what three or four deep colors the ladies wore.

Production Values Continue to Evolve at Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works

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By Perry Tannenbaum

January 29, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Ever since the event was created in 2003, when Charlotte Ballet was known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, Innovative Works has been a special event in the company’s season, performed at a special venue that further set it apart. The size of these venues, the length of the pieces on the program, and the number of dancers in each work were all smaller than the big ensemble pieces staged at Belk Theater and, more recently, at Knight Theater. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux was not only providing a platform for edgier, lapidary pieces, he was also establishing an incubator for new choreographers, usually dancers or former dancers in the company, to expand their creativity and pave a pathway to their afterlives when they were no longer onstage.

Works first seen at Innovative have not only enriched the repertoire of Charlotte’s pre-eminent performing arts group, they have served as springboards for further choreographic creations and for the formation of new companies outside Charlotte established by the former fledglings. This year’s collection of miniatures, running at the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance through February 20, presents the brainchildren of current and former troupe members wedged among works by the company’s resident choreographers. Included on the bill are pieces by Dwight Rhoden, Mark Diamond, Sasha Janes, David Ingram, Sarah Hayes Harkins, David Morse, Gregory Taylor, and Josh Hall.

That’s a bunch, to be sure, but three of the works choreographed by current dancers – the “Dancer Spotlight” – are presented in rolling rep, so each evening consists of six pieces. The first two, Rhoden’s “Ballad Unto” and Ingram’s “Omologia,” are staples in every performance of the run. Taken together, they exemplify how Innovative has evolved. Intimacy and chamber size are no longer requisites of new choreography unveiled at the McBride. Both of these pieces were long enough to present on the Knight Theater mainstage, and by the time they were done, we had seen 18 dancers perform, including three up-and-comers from the satellite Charlotte Ballet II company.

Although scenery is still outlawed in this studio setting, lighting has become very sophisticated. In fact, the hard-edge lighting designs by Jennifer Propst are very much at the forefront of both experiences. Further blurring the difference between Knight and McBride presentations, the previously filmed “Behind the Dance” segments, where the choreographers talk about either their aesthetic or the genesis of the piece we’re about to see, are now as much a part of Innovative as they were last October in Fall Works at the Knight.

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Photos by Peter Zay

Rhoden’s “Ballad Unto” sets Bach’s famed Chaconne, prerecorded on violin, upon five couples, yet this destination is preceded by a setting to assorted sounds, textures, and rhythms that seemed equally long and substantial. Jamie Dee Clifton and Josh Hall were the couple that grabbed my attention most dynamically, but Ben Ingel and Raven Barkley were also charismatic standouts. All ten of the performers delighted in both the high-speed handwork and the footwork that Rhoden challenged them with, consistently accenting the beat with precision. Rhoden himself had fresher, livelier ideas than you might expect from him this deep into his career responding to Bach. Propst had a fairly a fairly stunning reaction to the choreography, setting five squares on the floor in an M formation for the five couples, occasionally replacing them with – or superimposing them on – an inverted V.

Interaction between the dancers and Propst’s lighting design was even more salient in Ingram’s “Omologia.” As the eight dancers advanced toward us at the outset of the piece, set to Corelli’s “La Follia,” a bright illuminated line across the stage seemed to daunt their progress. Once the dancers took possession of the stage, we discovered that there would be two more lines of lights connected to the first – and that each of the three lines was actually comprised of three adjacent squares. So while the dancers danced in close sync with the music, the nine pre-programmed squares, blinking on and off, were similarly wed to the movements and the shifting tableaus of the dancers. Numerous permutations of the nine squares flashed before us, including U shapes formed by seven of the squares that opened out at various moments to all four points on the compass.

From these lengthy baroque abstractions, we suddenly transitioned to a very real subject with Harkins’ “#Hatehurts,” the sort of high-concept piece that has typified Innovative in the past. Diagonally across the stage from each other when the lights came up, Sarah Lapointe in the foreground and Ingel upstage sat in front of laptop computers, reacting to online bullying and its fatal consequences. Of the six dances, this was the only one that didn’t come to us paired with a filmed introduction. Sure, it was the piece that least required explanation, but it was also so short that a prelude may only have drawn further attention to the piece’s brevity. Perhaps if the seated opening tableau didn’t seem to be such a substantial portion of the piece, the effect would have been more powerful, for the dance seemed to end as it was just getting started once the couple converged at the middle of the stage. The ratio between the prerecorded bullying and suffering we heard about and the anguish we saw live from the dancers ultimately struck me as too message-rich, an effective presentation for middle schoolers, perhaps, but artistically too thin for me.

John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” served as both title and soundtrack for David Morse’s piece, brilliantly danced by Harkins and Hall. In costuming, lighting, and choreography, Morse divides his work in two. The dancers come on in dim light, Hall in a waistcoat and Harkins in a long flowing blouse. Turning up their intensity, the dancers shed these upper garments as the lights come up fully. This moment of liberation is amplified by the ensuing choreography, which utilizes the entire stage. Morse’s piece returns to the rotation during the evenings of the final weekend of the run, February 18-20. Next weekend, Morse’s spot is taken by Gregory Taylor’s “Requiem of a Meaning,” and Hall shows off his “Social Butterfly” on the third weekend.

Hall will be borrowing rookie dancer Ryo Suzuki for his solo piece. Meanwhile, he is featured in “Yamato, earth/nature/drum,” a three-part celebration of Japan by Diamond, demonstrating that he’s no less eager to pursue new directions than Rhoden. The 12 people in this piece form a spherical mass as Propst’s shimmering lighting comes up, with Suzuki slapped across it horizontally. Then the ball explodes in big-bang fashion to an original score arranged by Rocky Iwashima, heavy with taiko pounding. Ultimately, the group regathers downstage in a tableau that is analogous to the spherical beginning but with Suzuki in an uplifted, triumphal posture. Inside of this effective framing, Suzuki and Addul Manzano are the dominant presences, although Barkley is hard to ignore whenever she’s involved.

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Photo by Christopher Record

For his new work, “Sketches from Grace,” Janes veered from his intent to create settings for works by Leonard Cohen, opting instead for a four-piece suite of settings to cuts by Jeff Buckley – including his cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which became a posthumous #1 hit for Buckley in 2008. The work showcases a punkish set of costumes by Katherine Zywczyk with faint, silvery highlights, beginning with Buckley’s most distinctive original, “You and I,” a brooding, floating, dreamy song that would seem to defy choreography. Yet Chelsea Dumas and James Kopecky fully conveyed the smoldering energy lurking in the lyric. Once covered by Nina Simone, “Lilac Wine” took the tempo up to a bluesy dirge, given an aching elegance by Ingel partnering with Alessandra Ball James. Bringing the tempo further up to a lethargic shuffle, “Hallelujah” was undoubtedly the climax of the suite, danced with such heartbreaking perfection by Hayes and Hall that the audience applauded as if it were the finale, although Janes’s video intro had promised us that all three couples had a concluding segment together. That closing ensemble was a more driven Buckley original, “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” very appropriate for the hubbub of three couples strutting their stuff simultaneously. Those last pushes in tempo, spectacle, and animation gave the audience one more reason to cheer.