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After a Disconcerting Alarm, Charlotte Ballet’s “Most Incredible Thing” Runs Like Clockwork

Review:  The Most Incredible Thing

By  Perry Tannenbaum

After watching the YouTube video of choreographer Javier de Frutos’ adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Most Incredible Thing in its original 2011 Sadler’s Wells production, I had to wonder how much of this dazzling spectacle Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir could deliver at Knight Theater. Although villainous Karl the Destroyer was danced by Ivan Putrov in London with devastating panache, and Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess – offered along with half the kingdom by her father, The King, to the creator of the most incredible thing – was a marvel of spasmodic anguish, I had little doubt that their American counterparts, Anson Zwingelberg and Chelsea Dumas, would shine as brightly. My doubts centered on Knight Theater itself.

Incorporating so many movable set pieces by Katrina Lindsay (who also designed costumes), studded with challenging video installations to accommodate film and animation by Tal Rosner, The Most Incredible Thing would test the Knight’s capabilities beyond anything I’d witnessed there since the facility opened in 2009, including The Aluminum Show, Momix, Avenue Q, and Peter and the Starcatcher. To be honest, The Most Incredible Thing is more collaborative and ambitious than most full-length ballets or even new operas, for it has so much more baked into it than the de Frutos choreography and an original score by the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Film and animation have to be delivered – onto screens and scrims – with even more pinpoint accuracy than the dancing.

Ominously, the opening night performance and the ensuing Saturday matinee were canceled “due to mechanical failure.” Announcements appeared at the Charlotte Ballet website, on the company’s Twitter account, and on their Facebook page – the latter time-stamped at 5:07pm on the evening of the performance. So until I took my seat at the Saturday evening performance, I really hadn’t known that I was attending the opening night of the American premiere of The Most Incredible Thing. An usher delivered the news instead of Charlotte Ballet’s PR rep. There was a bit more tension and drama to this performance than I had anticipated!

As it turned out, the most significant modifications that I noticed in Act One appeared to result from deliberate changes by de Frutos to his choreography and Zwingelberg’s approach to Karl. In contrast with Putrov’s charismatic take on Karl, reminding me of vintage Baryshnikov and Lucas Steele’s recent Broadway portrayal of Prince Anatol in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Zwingelberg was more angular and Machiavellian, his eyes blackened to emphasize his menace. Yet perhaps nodding to the fact that his piece now occupies a slot in Charlotte Ballet’s season normally filled by such fairy fluff as Cinderella and Peter Pan, de Frutos has softened Karl somewhat so that he no longer brutalizes his henchmen before his abortive attempt to seduce The Princess.

Instead of a talking TV emcee entering with a hand-held microphone, the Charlotte Ballet version has Sarah Lapointe mutely dancing the role in sync with the Emcee’s prerecorded patter. The entire staging of The King’s contest is radically altered, with silhouetted contestants projected on a centerstage scrim and new video supplanting some of the original views of the judges (carried over from the Sadler’s Wells version in its quaint silent film black-and-white). Instead of hundreds of hopefuls vying for The Princess’s hand, the cosmic number of contestants rises well past 10 billion as the video fades out.

All of these alterations work remarkably well, but what brought us more grandly to intermission was the decision to delay the break until after Leo the Creator, already backed and beloved by The Princess, demonstrates his miraculous watch. As the watchmaker, Josh Hall abandons the tortured artist mien of the London protagonist in favor of a more wholesome interpretation – the miraculous watch springs to life from his hands as a phenomenal wonder even to himself rather than as an agonizing pang of giving birth. And the Rosner video, interspersed with live dancing, is an undeniable wonder.

Rising and falling while constantly displaying the steady flow of animations, the huge clock proves to be an electronic video screen rather than a cloth projection screen, maybe the largest circular TV that I’ve ever seen, including the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Blowing away at least half of Andersen’s concept of what each digit on the clock represents, de Frutos and Rosner make it a retrospective of all human history, beginning with Adam as 1 and Eve as 2. Lindsay gets into the act here with skimpier costumes for Adam and Eve that paradoxically supply their full names instead of their initials, and when we reach 4 o’clock, she abets de Frutos’s altered choreography by labeling the dancers’ slacks with the names of the four seasons, adding clarity to the previously abstract episode.

Even as de Frutos contrives to make this Charlotte Ballet version more family-friendly, the watchmaker’s demo grows majestically in power during its second half. Echoing the “Big Spender” number from Sweet Charity, the depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins, also newly labeled, featured seven sultry female dancers – some of whom were actually men in red wigs – with white-gloved “Fosse hands.” Eight was a play on the musical octave that not everyone will catch onto, and 9 o’clock signaled the presentation of prenatal video, referencing the months of pregnancy.

Ten was the last borrowing from Andersen, presenting the Ten Commandments, with ten dancers splayed around Moses shifting their formations as an overhead view of them flashed on the clockface. From there, we blasted off to video of Apollo 11 and man’s first walk on the moon. With a Zarathustra-like swell in the musical score, 12 climaxed Leo’s demonstration by summing it all up – with some 300 names of great artists flashing onto the screen to underscore the overall theme of creation.

Emerging from Knight Theater for the single intermission (three acts have been reconfigured into two), I had no doubt that what I’d already seen far eclipsed the technical sophistication of any show previously presented at that venue. In fact, Matthew Bourne’s ballyhooed adaptation of The Red Shoes, which toured Charlotte back in October at Belk Theater, seemed puny in its technical ambitions by comparison and clumsy in its storytelling. Everything ran with nearly absolute precision at Knight Theater, so it was reasonable to assume that all “mechanical failure” had been conquered. Nor were there any indications that last-minute alterations were necessitated anywhere in Act Two, when Leo’s happily-ever-after victory in the contest was dramatically detoured – but not ultimately destroyed – by Karl the Destroyer. Karl ambushes the lovebirds backstage, seizes and destroys Leo’s miraculous watch, and the contest judges, consulting their rules, have to declare that destroying the most incredible thing is more prizeworthy than creating it.

When the kingdom falls into a desperate gloom after this twist of events, the lighting motif by designer Lucy Carter is still a lurid red, but most of the bloody elements of the video depicting the devastation have been discreetly muted or removed. On the other hand, when the Three Muses who helped inspire the marvelous clock return to rebuild it, they now have supersized scissors to cut the villain into bits and spring Leo from prison. All of this magic and good fortune – with encore video on the big clock – is crowned with a joyous wedding celebration. The regimented citizens who had previously danced robotically back and forth to their places at a long table now tossed confetti with equal precision at the wedding. On Saturday, that was the only hazardous scene in the entire show, for Hall nearly slipped on the confetti afterwards when he trotted out to take his bows.

The battle between divine creativity and brute force plays out beautifully in this edgy extravaganza, the Tennant-Lowe score nearly as nuanced as the de Frutos choreography. In her starring role, Dumas mostly dances hostile pas de deuxs with Karl or her father, relaxing and showing her potential for joy only intermittently with Leo. Her black wedding with Karl is the deepest thing in the piece, for it is here that de Frutos taps into the heart of his scenario, linking the robotic citizens of the despotic kingdom with the incredible watch that might ultimately liberate them. In this black wedding, there are moments when the women circle around the men like arms of a clock, Karl towering above them all, and there’s a sequence when we see couples dancing in place, moving around each other like wooden brides and grooms on a medieval town clock tolling the hour. We were not only seeing a somber variant on the townspeople’s precision movement but a foreshadowing of the miraculous return of Leo’s clock.

The supporting roles were all superbly danced, including Sarah Lapointe as Emcee, Drew Grant as Adam, and Raven Barkley as Eve. Anyone seeing Charlotte Ballet for the first time will not be surprised to learn that each of the Three Muses – Amelia Sturt-Dilley as Concentration, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Love, and Alessandra Ball James as Courage – has danced leading roles for the company in the past. As the kingdom’s drones, Karl’s henchmen, and numerous other cameos, 18 other members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II also populate the stage. Almost as impressive in this complex collaboration, they frequently act as stagehands, setting up, disassembling, or merely reconfiguring scenery pieces and scrims so that this sensory assault never drifts out of sync with the Pet Shop Boys’ prerecorded soundtrack. The Most Incredible Thing may be the most hyped title you’ll ever encounter, but this Charlotte Ballet production often made it seem like a casual description. Despite the alarm of its sudden opening night cancellation, it was running like clockwork the following evening, far more vivid and moving in live performance than on YouTube.

©2018 – CVNC.org

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Charlotte Ballet’s New $1 Million Nut Is Everything It Was Cracked Up to Be

Dance Review :  Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Many of the people who jammed into Belk Theater on Saturday afternoon, nearly filling the top balcony to the rafters, were wondering the same thing as I was. Just how much can $1 million do to improve Charlotte Ballet’s already stellar production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker? There weren’t any gaping holes that needed to be filled in when it came to the live music. Charlotte Symphony has played the ballet score beautifully ever since Salvatore Aiello transplanted the dance troupe, originally known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, from Winston-Salem in 1990.

Many of the musicians – and many of the orchestra’s principals – who accompanied Aiello’s setting for Nutcracker in the early years have played on through the many iterations of Jean-Pierre Boonefoux’s choreography, which premiered in 2006. Every one of the players works up the same zest for the music as the year before. Nor can money buy a much finer array of dancers to fill the stage with agility and grace. Calling the dancers in Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II – not to mention the various levels of apprentices, trainees, and students from the company’s Academy – the best in North Carolina may actually be an understatement.

Of course, the unprecedented gift had garnered plenty of positive publicity for the donors, the McColl family of Bank of America fame, and the worthy recipients. Unless you had completely ignored the Charlotte Observer for the past three months, you already knew that the McColl makeover would bring new Nutcracker costumes and new scenery to the Belk stage – and to lavishly renovated Gaillard Center in Charleston, where the Christmas classic will sojourn on December 10 and 11 before returning to Charlotte on December 13-23 for an additional 13 performances. I probably wasn’t alone in bringing a show-me attitude to the unusual matinee premiere, for the costumes, the scenery, and the spectacle of Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker, incrementally upgraded in its early years, had already proven to be quite formidable in their elegance and wit.

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Holly Hynes’s new set of costume designs gobbled up most of the prepublicity. Taking her inspiration from the Belle Epoque (1871-1914), Hynes and a team of 300 dressmakers in 15 states created 208 new costumes, each one costing as much as $6000. As she confessed in one of the two infomercials I’ve seen, Hynes often had to rely on a bunch of polyester to offset the extravagance of the dancers’ silks. The new scenery by Alain Vaës obviously took its inspiration from Bonnefoux’s traditional Nutcracker scenario and Steven Rubin’s set designs, seeming to depart more radically from Rubin’s concepts as the story moved from the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party to Clara’s dreamy fantasies, developing a whole new motif of whimsy – lifesize cutouts! – along the way.

Vaës wasn’t working with a paltry budget, either. A whole new trim, teeming with red, covered the entire arc of the proscenium. The backlit scrim of the Staulbaums’ town, more brightly lit by the lamplight gleaming through the windows of the homes than by the moonlight, greeted us like the frontispiece of a storybook.

In its nocturnal grayness, the first exterior view of the Staulbaum home was very similar to Rubin’s, but we were looking from a greater distance, seeing all that can be seen instead of merely the front façade. There was a little more humor in the gradual reveal of the magnificent interior, for the first of the new cutouts, a housemaid, was wheeled out to centerstage to greet the guests. Onto its outstretched arms, the parade of guests flung coats, stoles, and scarves until this cunning portable closet was rolled away.

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Imagery in the new Vaës scenic designs is bolder, more calculated to appear colossal, and the designer’s drawings evoked for me two of the great masterworks of the Belle Epoque, War and Peace and Alice in Wonderland. Probably by sheer accident, the bold muscularity and the florid curves in some of the scenery reminded me of Fritz Eichenberg’s memorable illustrations for the Heritage edition of Tolstoy’s epic. But the evocation of Alice was quite intentional. After the party, when Clara nodded off, the Mouse King entered the scene on a broken teacup for his royal battle with the Nutcracker. Once Clara assisted her champion in his victory, the set changed briefly to a surreal and magical toyland, where the head of Clara’s doll was as large as the castle. Very Alice.

The new scenery also brings fresh emphasis to numerous arrivals. Drosselmeyer’s amazing gifts, Clara’s Toy Doll and her brother Fritz’s Toy Soldier, arrive on carts where each of them is flanked by two lifesize cutouts of the same toy. Instead of lifting her massive skirts to reveal her periwigged Marzipan brood, Mother Ginger arrived on the second floor of her own gingerbread house, opening the front doors to let them out. But aside from the Mouse King’s teacup and the flying balloon-boat that carries Clara off to the Land of Sweets – a galleon now large enough to transport two honeymooning couples – the most significant entrance was created for Herr Drosselmeyer. He arrived at the Stahlbaum soirée in his own clock tower!

Mark Diamond may hold onto his annual stint as Drosselmeyer even after he’s forced to arrive clutching a walker, for he still revels in reminding us with his comical antics that he himself is program director of Charlotte Ballet II and, more importantly, one of the company’s potent line of resident choreographers. The Drosselmeyer shtick always looks like Diamond is doing his own thing, altering the routine every year – maybe every performance.

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The new clock draws the spotlight in Mary Louise Geiger’s new lighting design when Tchaikovsky’s score tolls the midnight hour chez Stahlbaum. Using his new cutouts, Bonnefoux completely alters this segment in his choreography. In past years, spotlights flashed on a different costumed kid each time the bell tolled, unpredictably scanning the full width of the stage. Now there was simply a single-file parade of various cutouts, their manipulators hidden behind them. As we approached the final chiming, we had our first glimpse of the lifesize girl doll that would enlarge to supernatural Alice-size in the yet-unseen scenery.

Geiger also teamed up with Hynes on some of the new magic. Like the opening cityscape, Vaës’s new Land of Sweets builds on Rubin’s previous concept of candy canes and gumdrops by putting us at a greater distance and increasing its scale. We could now see a huge skylight window in the rooftop dome opening up on a starry evening sky. At floor level below, the view also opens up to the outdoors, directing our gaze toward the horizon. Initially, there was a marked difference between the two views: it was still twilight on the horizon while it was already evening above.

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In this unflattering light, we had our first glimpse of the newly minted backup dancers for the Coffee segment. Their bright red skirts, contrasting sharply with their dark blouses, seemed garish under the bright light between the little Marzipan and Candy Cane groups. But Geiger would dramatically lower the lights for Raven Barkley and Ben Ingel, so it was now (briefly) nighttime both on the horizon and above when they performed their sinuous Coffee pas de deux – and the perfection of the six backup dancers’ glowing red skirts in this dimmed light redeemed them from the first impressions they had made. Their pink capes also made a difference.

In little ways and in big ways, Bonnefoux and his design team have heightened the wow factor in staging their spectacle. Just for the Tea segment in Act 2, a Chinese dragon drops down from the flyloft for a visit, and the Stahlbaums’ Christmas tree no longer stops it miraculous growth when its piney peak hits the ceiling. Now when Drosselmeyer cast his spell, that growth continued on the upstage backdrop until the entire upstage wall was filled with what we imagined was a wee portion of the fabulously gigantic tree. You need not worry that such awesome stagecraft at all diminishes the exploits of the dancers. Aided by their revamped costumes, Charlotte Ballet still measured up to the superabundance surrounding them.

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Rosie Morrison as Clara and Clay Houston as Fritz may be the most personable Stahlbaum kids I’ve seen. The precision and perfection of Sarah Hayes Harkins as the Sugar Plum Fairy will surely inspire little ballerinas who see Nutcracker for the first time. Harkins hits every beat with her elegant movements exactly on the nose, and her new partner, Drew Grant, is the picture of chivalry as her Cavalier, though the rookie needs to loosen up a bit. Chelsea Dumas and Ben Ingel were a similarly ideal couple at the premiere as the Snow Queen and King, and Alessandra Ball James was luminous in her musicality as Rose in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Below tea green tops, Rose’s dozen dancing flowers sported frilly three-tiered skirts, each tier a different tint of pink or fuchsia. Even a child could recognize the stems and petals of the flowers for what they were.

Except for Fritz, who is merely doublecast, there’s a dizzying rotation of four dancers for each of the major roles I just named. It would take an astronomer to predict when, where, and if this exact alignment will occur again, so let me merely add the names of the other dancers who will figure in the dizzying mix: Jamie Dee Clifton, Elizabeth Truell, and Sarah Lapointe among the ladies, James Kopecky and Juwan Alston among the gentlemen.

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The athleticism of the Charlotte Ballet men did shine through during the Act 2 procession of divertissements, counterbalancing the dominance of the ballerinas. Newcomer Peter Mazurowski sparkled in the Gopak section and, under that dragon, Humberto Ramazzina from the II troupe served charmingly – and deferentially – in Tea. Both of these men are in a rotation of three men who will dance their roles. So will Ryo Suzuki, whom I wasn’t seeing for the first time as Candy Cane. I don’t think I’ve seen Ryo’s match in performing Candy’s joyously asymmetrical leaps, but I’m sure parents and children of all ages will be satisfied when Suzuki rotates to Tea and Gopak.

New Costumes and Scenery Heighten the Wonder of Charlotte Ballet’s “Little Mermaid”

By Perry Tannenbaum

March 11, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Everything seems to be going so well at Charlotte Ballet as Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux stands on the verge of his final year as artistic director. During his tenure, Bonnefoux has seen his dance troupe establish residence in the trendiest theater in town on South Tryon Street while the company strengthened its educational program at its new administrative HQ on North Tryon Street. Two days before opening night of a nine-performance run of The Little Mermaid, choreographed by Mark Diamond, news broke that the McColl family – the BofA billionaires – had given the company $1 million to revamp Bonnefoux’s version of The Nutcracker, leaving little doubt about what the company’s most spectacular production will be for years to come. That announcement may have upstaged the new sets and costumes adorning the Diamond remount in the eyes of newspaper readers, but for the horde of little girls who helped fill Knight Theater to near capacity on opening night, the light in their eyes came from the new undersea wonders lavished upon The Little Mermaid.

There was definitely a fresh dazzle in the new costumes by Aimee J. Coleman, and their iridescence wasn’t confined to the rig Alessandra Ball James wore as the Mermaid before shedding her tailfins for legs. Three Little Mermaid Friends and a matching pair of Seahorses also gleamed, and there was a Day-Glo phosphorescence to the costumes of the Eels, the Undertow group, and the Fish. This new Little Mermaid signals that the extensive use of youthful dancers at Charlotte Ballet will no longer be confined to the annual Nutcracker extravaganza. No less than 20 kids are listed as Fish in the program, and they actually began the show with an extensive dance of their own, fluttering in formation and seemingly gliding across the stage in a manner that simulated black-light puppetry. Diamond had them admirably schooled to resemble a school of fish at multiple points in their dance.

Costumes that aren’t aglow are frequently marvels. Parents will no doubt need to dip into their program booklets to inform their princesses that Ryo Suzuki is an Anemone, but there’s no mistaking Raven Barkley for anything but a Sea Turtle. The sheer plenitude of sea creatures that have nothing to do with the story is a constant delight, not in the least Rylie Beck, making her way up the orchestra aisle at a snail’s pace and lurking onstage as the Hermit Crab – though she could easily be mistaken for a Mary Poppins’ old rucksack. As enchanting as all these costumes were, the new wow factor came from Michael Baumgarten’s lighting projections, functional when the Mermaid’s destined Prince gets thrown overboard during a storm but truly spectacular as we glide through undersea corals and canyons.

The low tech, held over from previous Mermaid productions of 2008 and 2011, mixes charmingly with the high tech as we watch the scene where the Prince is tossed by the tempest and the Mermaid rescues him. Three linen ribbons that stretched across the stage were the sea, and I’m sure that the sailboat James Kopecky fell out of wasn’t even half-built. Throughout the opening act, while the Mermaid remains a finned sea creature, Diamond solves the Mermaid’s mobility problem by having her transported in the sort of sledge the crippled Porgy might use, drawn by the same invisible hands that ripple the linen ocean from the wings. When Ball James rises from floor level, she remains horizontal thanks to the ministrations of her Friends and the rolling Undertow crew.

Although Addul Manzano makes a dashing appearance as the Sea King, Diamond hasn’t integrated him into the drama. Aside from the Mermaid, who occasionally appears on the verge of being heaved onto a dinner platter, it’s Jamie Dee Clifton who makes the biggest splash as the Sea Witch. Beyond pointing upwards, the Mermaid doesn’t articulate what she’s yearning for in the climactic encounter with the Witch, but the real exposition gap that Diamond leaves parents to fill in for their kids is the particulars of the bargain that the Mermaid agrees to when the Witch grants her the ability to walk on land. Clifton’s movements – and her saturnine costume – make it clear enough that goodwill and charity aren’t motivating the Witch as she grants the Mermaid’s wishes, and there’s a wondrous fairytale foreboding when Clifton hands Ball James the magic potion that effects her metamorphosis.

Thanks to the last of Baumgarten’s projections, the Mermaid awakens on a beauteous seashore with her newfound legs. Diamond doesn’t skip over the most absurd aspect of the Mermaid’s transformation, so we get an endearing, comical incongruity that no parent will be able to explain. After the Mermaid marvels at her feet and toes, she stands up tentatively on her legs like a newborn foal – and within seconds is dancing like the Princess Grace Fellowship winner that Ball James truly is. Even without the same undersea magic afterwards, Diamond constructs a second act that intertwines the Mermaid/Prince romance with a couple of strands of comedy and a couple of explosions of pure dance.

Along with two Charlotte Ballet II troupe members, namely Suzanna Duba and the hunched-over Ben Youngstone, Beck sheds her shell to become one of three Gossips. Singly, they snoop and scurry about in various corners and alleys of the set as the Mermaid glows, blushes, and plain shows off in response to all the attentions that the Prince lavishes upon her. Collectively, they engage in effusive sessions of head-bobbing, mouth-flapping gossip. But it’s a military trio, no more pertinent to the action than the Turtle before them, who provide the greatest comic delight. David Morse is pomposity itself as the General, head tilted back and sporting an imposing belly bulge. Yet he begins bickering lustily as soon as Josh Hall appears as the Admiral, topped with the appropriate seafaring hat. It becomes so heated – and of course, silly – that Amand Pulaj as the Secretary General is hard-pressed to keep them for pawing each other to death.

When he isn’t bickering, the General reviews a small brigade of Officers whose uniforms are colorfully unalike. But in her costumes for Suzuki, Juwan Alston, Iago Bresciani, Ben Ingel, Thel Moore, and Gregory Taylor; Coleman makes sure that each of the designs registers as unmistakably Russian, matching the spirited music by Glière that they dance to. Nearly all these soldier dances are solos where each of the men vies with the others in acrobatic éclat. But the Russian flavor only crystallizes what has gone before. There is some Debussy wedged into the score Diamond has chosen, but with the generous selections from Borodin’s chamber and orchestral works, the overall musical texture is decidedly Russian. When we adjourn from the Prince’s garden to the ballroom in his palace (the most impressive of Howard Jones’s new set designs), we could be at any Russian ballet, for Diamond’s dance stylings are as retro as the music.

During this formal cotillion, Sarah Hayes Harkins comes into full flower as the Prince’s Fiancée, a vision of cold elegant perfection as she dances with Kopecky, hardly deigning to notice her rival skulking in the corner in her damp rags. The tension between the supple, skittish, and vulnerable Ball James and the serene and imperious Harkins seems so ideal that I wondered how they could be switching roles for four of the nine performances. But they are merely the tip of a general shuffle of principals including Kopecky, Manzano, Hall, Morse, Clifton, and Chelsea Dumas. Diamond could easily shuffle a few more members from the main troupe and the satellite Ballet II dancers without marring the overall effect. The company that Bonnefoux has built is that strong.

© 2016 CVNC

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

Innovative Works_Yamato_Dancer Ryo Suzuki

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.

Charlotte Ballet Innovative Works by Christopher Record

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.