Review: Innovative 1970 at Center for Dance
By Perry Tannenbaum
February 4, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Distorted by delay, the title of Charlotte Ballet’s latest program sounds more like an oxymoron than ever. Innovative 1970 was originally designed to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, but COVID intervened in all our lives so that the official celebration couldn’t be staged until October 2021, already 51 years after the original troupe was formed in Winston-Salem as the North Carolina Dance Theatre. That commemoration included an electrifying revival of The Rite of Spring by Salvatore Aiello, who brought NCDT to Charlotte in 1990. Following that program, the company more predictably reprised The Nutcracker for the holidays, choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who succeeded Aiello as NCDT’s artistic director in 1996 and rebranded the troupe in 2014.
The durably titled Innovative 1970 is thus the first program of all-new pieces since Charlotte Ballet returned to live performances this season and the first to return dancers and subscribers to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, doubly appropriate because 1970 was adopted as the creative trigger for all three newly commissioned pieces on the program, choreographed by Andrés Trezevant, Rena Butler, and Ja’ Malik.
Appropriate to its Vietnam War theming, Trezevant’s “What Was It For?” arrived for its premiere as a partial amputee, for the beginning of the scenario in the printed program, where war protesters make houses out of draft cards, is MIA – along with the conspicuous absence of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets (1974).” What remained thrust us into middle of warfare, Julie Ballard’s lighting design turning the floor of the Center for Dance’s black box into camo splotches of green and gray, while a house of cards lingered downstage, now a cryptic relic of the original concept. A quaint portable radio was spotlit near the opposite wing, likely another leftover, but it remained functional, emitting only white noise as five male dancers, dressed as soldiers, populated the stage, simulating scenes of combat, capture, escape, and rescue.
We were clearly – and perhaps angrily – back home, when Maurice Mouzon Jr. subsequently performed a dashing solo to Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues (1967).” The two women in this piece, Sarah Lapointe and Anna Mains, arrived onstage as healers while the scene brightened somewhat. Now the returning soldiers – Colby Foss, Ben Ingel, James Kopecky, and Rees Launer – were presumably in hospitals and rehab, dealing with mental and physical trauma in the grim aftermath of a futile war. I suspect that the house of draft cards was intended to fall at the end, but it remained standing.
Subliminal Tsunami by Rena Butler, with original music by Daniel J. Hoffman, was a more acerbic and satirical piece that took 1970 as a checkpoint on the state of women’s rights and horizons, compared with where they are today. Recorded voices of Gloria Steinem, Nikki Giovanni, and ABC News anchor Marlene Sanders were in the colloquium, intermingled with recorded voices of seven Charlotte Ballet dancers delivering their own personal accounts. Sharply contrasting with this dignified discussion was what we saw onstage, five women dancers coldly confined by Ballard’s lighting into five squares. The stiffness of Lapointe, Raven Barkley, Isabella Franco, Sarah Hayes Harkins, and Amelia Sturt-Dilley, dressed in matching costumes by Kerri Martinsen, clearly identified them as a collection of Barbie dolls, handled dutifully by four men – Foss, Ingel, Launer, and David Preciado.
Only occasionally did the voices compete with the dancers for attention as the piece proceeded, giving the dancers more latitude for movement. No doubting that the black box’s sound system sorely needs an overhaul, OK for rehearsals but not suitable for prime time. It was still a bit stinging to listen to the cautions against following your impulses issued to young girls contemplating a future of homemaking. Lamentably, the pace of progress for women has been mostly subliminal, not at all a tsunami, though cumulatively we have evolved substantially since 1970, and more progress can be perceived if we look back to when women gained the right to vote 50 years earlier. While I was bothered to see the dancers still masked in 2022, Butler had an ingenious way of coping with the situation: Big smiley, lipsticked mouths on Martinsen’s matching flesh-colored masks were clearly and effectively part of the women’s design.
After the traumas of war and the indignities of gender inequality, it was refreshing to return after a second intermission to gypsy moths, Ja’ Malik’s joyous celebration of funk rockers LaBelle and their frequent collaborator Laura Nyro. A teeming cast of five men and five women, all in spangled masks, converged on the floor for “Met Him on a Sunday,” Nyro’s 1971 cover of a song introduced by The Shirelles thirteen years earlier, and “Come Into My Life,” introduced on LaBelle’s Chameleon album in 1976. “Gypsy Moths,” introduced on the same LaBelle album, paired the company into five couples Emily Porter with Kopecky, Harkins with Humberto Ramazinna, Shaina Wire with Josh Hall, Emerson Dayton with Preciado, and Barkley with Mouzon.
It wasn’t until the ensuing three songs that it became clear that Barkley and Mouzon were the alpha couple of Malik’s piece, for Barkley was obviously the lead in “The Wind” and Mouzon was unquestionably the alpha male in “Going on a Holiday,” both backed by the full cast. Neither of these ensemble segments was as special or memorable as Malik’s seething setting of “Been on a Train,” the whole stage cleared for a slithering Barkley-Mouzon pas de deux. “Desiree,” taken from Nyro’s 1971 Gonna Take a Miracle album was only slightly anticlimactic, a glittery showcase for the other four women, and “What Can I Do for You” was a stirring finale for the entire cast, so infectious that it roused rounds of rhythmic clapping from the audience. The ovation when the spectacularly dressed Malik joined the dancers onstage was even more raucous.
Originally published on 2/5 at CVNC.org