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Charlotte Ballet production merges dance with a live DJ

Worlds collide

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A Bach concerto's classical tones help paint a rhythm for the nearly dozen twisting and twirling men and women. Slowly, a Beyoncé beat comes over the top, merging the symphonic with R&B. Choreographer Dwight Rhoden takes it all in, watching the bodies find their flow as the music fills the warehouse space up to the rafters. As the notes fade out, he gathers everyone for a quick chat.

"You have to know your body and know your lines," Rhoden tells the dancers on this early April afternoon. "Contemporary dance is even more specific and you have to be clear about what you're showing. Boys, you have more work to do to show clarity."

The Charlotte Ballet is two weeks into rehearsals for a new work of Rhoden's, which he's tentatively calling "Swivel Pivot Flex." Until now, they've only been doing some basic moves, but he and the dancers are now trying to find their transitions and positions and put it together. As DJ Fannie Mae sits in the corner, scrolling through music and trying to find the next track she wants to play, the dancers take a quick break. With the world premiere taking place during Contemporary Fusion at the Knight Theater on April 23-25, everyone knows there's still a lot of work to be done. And it's not like working with a live DJ on stage is something the ballet does very often, either.

"I think there's more of a dynamic and vibe, a culture, an environment [with this production]," Rhoden, resident choreographer of the Charlotte Ballet since 2006, says during a break in rehearsals. "Originally, I thought there might be a wandering narrative in there somewhere, but that's yet to be discovered. It's also about having an interactive environment with a DJ. You don't normally come to the ballet and see a DJ. But you'll hear some Bach and some harpsichord, but you'll also hear funk and beats and hip-hop. It's truly a mélange I'm going for."

Though Rhoden has worked with a DJ before with his company Complexions in New York, it was actually one of the Charlotte Ballet board members who suggested it here. Catherine Fortin and her husband are commissioning Rhoden's ballet and suggested the idea of incorporating a live DJ to artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. As it turned out, Rhoden, Bonnefoux and the Fortins all shared the same vision.

Along with creating a new dance production, the Charlotte Ballet also hopes the idea might resonate with a different audience. Ballet shouldn't just conjure up images of Swan Lake and tutus.

"It's exciting because some of us have had fun in clubs Uptown and some of the girls here know [DJ Fannie Mae]. It's fun to be able to make that connection with your personal life," dancer Sarah Hayes Harkins says. "Depending on where she is — I think it would be cool to have her close by and interact a bit. It's fun for us to have some of this music to get excited about. "

Most of Rhoden's production will be structured, but there will be times for some improvisation. Rhoden says the idea is for it to look free form, even though it's not.

"We're also pulling silhouettes from something from the club and what you'd see with someone grooving to music," Rhoden says. "I want to paint that into what you see in the theater so there's something familiar. It will appear spontaneous, but it will be figured out. That's what I'm going for. That's hard to do. It's contemporary. It's like hitting a clear note — a C is a C. I want them to be as clear as possible. My movements are pretty dense and there are a lot of steps."

Harkins, who is in her seventh year with the company, is excited about the entire process. During rehearsal, she pieced together two movements the wrong way, but Rhoden liked it and said, "Let's just go with it." She says it can be tough to keep your mind straight when you're working on three productions at once, like they are for Contemporary Fusion, but Rhoden is one of her favorite people to work with. During one section, Rhoden suggests the dancers listen more to the lyrics in a song by Hoodie Allen instead of moving with the beat.

"He wants specific placement of our body that isn't what we might know," she says. "I've been doing some things since I was 7, but he wants you to do something that he creates like a sculpture and you have to lock your body into that position. You can't just not do something exactly how it was or it might morph into something different. Or it's natural to listen to the beat, but he wants us to focus on the words."

Even during "breaks," the dancers can be seen chatting, going over steps and practicing moves before Rhoden's ready to work again. Mae stays focused on her laptop, scrolling and sorting music. A fashion designer sits near Rhoden and works on sketches of what the dancers' outfits might look like.

"Here, I work in the room with the dancers but there's a lot of listening to music at home and visualizing, taking notes," Rhoden says. "There are images I want to see — a girl and guy, this is a slow-down moment, a full-stage moment, high-energy moment. I make phrases of movement and then I start to place them and puzzle them in. I don't ask [the dancers] to make up steps, but there will be some improvisation."

A musician can play a few notes in the moment, but to compose an entire piece of music, he or she needs more time. A DJ, on the other hand, can pull up a song on the spot, and Rhoden likes that. For Mae, the entire process is new and exciting. It's one thing to get some asses moving the club, but it's another to collaborate with a choreographer on composing a work of art put together for a ballet. Mae sees it as a pinnacle moment for her career.

"I've always been raised around dance — ballet, modern, contemporary. It's something I've always watched and enjoyed," Mae says. "This is the first time working on one and being a part of it. I'm still doing what I always do. The collaboration — [Rhoden] is very distinct in what he wants to do and has ideas for the music. So, how can I create a story with the music? Any art form is about relaying something."

Mae says some of the music will be prerecorded, while other moments will be mixed live. All the while, she knows she'll have to stay focused so she won't be distracted by the dancers, who will be listening for cues to help lead their movements through the production. Mae's DJ work will clearly set the production apart from the other works in Contemporary Fusion — a modern piece by Mark Godden and a classical piece by Bonnefoux.

All involved are hoping that a DJ mixing live on stage will break stereotypes and help draw the interest of people who may not regularly attend the ballet. "People don't really understand what I'll be doing with the ballet — ballerinas are going to be dancing ... while I DJ. This is real life," Mae says with an ear-to-ear grin. "I hope I can use my platform to get people out here to the ballet. People think it's orchestras and Beethoven. With something more up to date, people can relate to it."

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