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More of the Same New, Same New

Also, CSO's big shoes

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It's an intriguing idea, that's for sure – a dance company with two bases of operations, two time zones apart, one in Denver and the other here in Charlotte. Kim Robards and her eponymous troupe, well-established in the Rockies, are attempting to propagate their mission on the CPCC campus, spreading the gospel of modern dance through creation, performance and education.

Looking in on Bold Moves last Saturday night, the company's second foray at Halton Theater, I'd have to say that Kim Robards Dance isn't gaining a secure foothold in the foothills. Allowing 18 months to elapse between performances isn't likely to help establish brand name recognition in the future, either.

I'm making these judgments based on the multitudes of beige seatbacks I saw amid the sparse audience at Halton rather than the undeniable artistry onstage. The 53-year-old Robards is clearly a phenomenon, not only choreographing all four pieces in the Bold Moves program -- including the world premiere of Scales -- but also dancing athletically in three of them.

If anything, the latest program showed Robards off to better advantage than her company's Charlotte debut in April 2006. And there was more variety, both in the music she chose to choreograph and the costumes fitted to her ensemble.

But there was still far from enough variety. While we weren't subjected to the steady barrage of string quartets that marked KRD's first residency at Halton, all the music was 20th or 21st Century, with selections by John Adams and Jerome Begin (think Keith Jarrett with an academic edge) standing on the least avant-garde end of the playlist.

Most pleasing was the pairing of works prior to intermission. Waves Against Sand had the most colorful, flowing costumes of the three sets designed for the ensemble by Ann Louise Piano. Joyous, celebratory and unpredictable, Robards' choreography intricately deploys individuals, couples and groups across the stage in asymmetrical, contrapuntal patterns, relishing the inspiration of Bohuslav Martinu's music with nearly constant freshness and energy. Only the drab sameness of the lighting detracts from the spectacle.

Sameness really set in with the two additional ensemble pieces after intermission. Surge featured the most interesting lighting of the evening, but the steady pulsations of Adams' minimalism defeated my mom's attempts to stay awake. And while it made sense to dress the troupe in a variety of black-and-white outfits for Begin's music for solo piano, none of the dancers' movements in Scales really fortified the concept.

If you had paid close attention to Waves Against Sand, there was precious little to discover afterwards in Robards' vocabulary for partners or ensemble. That's why d'Affair Soi-Mime, a solo piece by dancer Michael Medcalf, was such a breath of fresh air. Costuming by Kenneth Irving departed radically from the mundane Piano mode, music by Bartuk and de Falla -- abetted by Medcalf's talents -- seemed to prod Robards out of her choreographic comfort zone, and Medcalf showed occasional signs of engaging the audience.

During the remainder of the evening, the performers enfolded themselves entirely in abstraction, never really engaging each other, let alone us. With the proficiency and precision that Robards & Co. bring to the stage, the aloofness of their style shouldn't be a barrier to gaining audience acceptance and loyalty here in Charlotte.

But if they think they're bringing modern dance to a parched landscape, KRD needs a serious reality check. Bold Moves hit the scene less than a week before North Carolina Dance Theatre's showcase of new work, Innovative Works, and six weeks after the Charlotte Dance Festival. NCDT has premiered numerous prestigious works since KRD's debut, and two Charlotte Dance Festivals have been staged during that 18-month interval along with a North Carolina Dance Festival at UNC Charlotte. Count those festivals as missed opportunities to maintain contact and build audience support.

Overcoming that aloofness would be a step in the right direction. Stretching out with edgier pieces like Soi-Mime, bringing more designers into the mix, and embracing a wider spectrum of music -- jazz, blues, rock, pop, Latin and vocal if Robards wishes to remain purely modern -- would also help. As evidenced by her brief pre-intermission talk (without a drop of visible perspiration or fatigue!), Robards brings an ebullient personality to the task of addressing her audience. I'm hoping she channels more of that verve into connecting with her newly adopted city before the box office closes.

Variety and aloofness probably aren't the most tactful topics to bring up before turning to music director Christof Perick's return to the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra podium last week, conducting Mahler's Fourth. Like the opening concert of the season, CSO was welcoming a woman guest soloist playing a Piano Concerto #2. Anne-Marie McDermott in your program booklet instead of Olga Kern; Beethoven replacing Rachmaninoff.

As you know, CSO has launched a search/smackdown to replace Perick after the maestro's announcement of his resignation late last year. Presumably, the search committee hopes to land someone who will not absent himself from the job -- and the city -- for eight months when forced to deal with family health issues. Or maybe someone who, after such an absence, could lavish a word of greeting on his loyal subscribers upon his or her return.

Programming and personality issues aside, there's no doubt that Perick's successor will have big shoes to fill musically. That was instantly apparent when the maestro and McDermott strode onto the stage, hello or no. The opening allegro was delightfully light and crisp, with McDermott prodding Beethoven to look over his shoulder at his jocund forebear Mozart during the concertante passages, Perick in full accord. Even more convincing was McDermott's middleweight reading of the adagio, shimmering with wondrous dynamic shadings. I found the closing rondo allegro only slightly anti-climactic when McDermott turned on her jets without the power and thunder of some of her rivals.

In Mahler's fourth, Perick & Co. engaged one of the great symphonist's most congenial works for our orchestra's natural size. Still, the purse-strings were opened to field 14 first violins on the Belk Theater stage, two more than the necessary minimum. They played together with an almost festive air in the opening movement, a heavenly ringing hinting at our ultimate destination in the concluding movement.

Cellos and first violins came to the fore when we reached the more somber, yet still delicate, feelings of the reposeful third movement. The childlike finale, sung by Maria Jette, may have been slightly underpowered at first, but there was bloom and beauty in the voice from top to bottom, a fitting vehicle for a heaven-blessed child.

A second violin lay mysteriously on a piano bench until the eerie second movement. Tuned a full step above his habitual instrument, concertmaster Calin Lupanu seized upon it for solos depicting the mythological Hein, notorious for luring reluctant travelers away from their bodily existence. Musically, these macabre passages could hardly have been framed by more tenderly uplifting melody.

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