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NCDT's season opener Ballet, Ballroom & Bluegrass

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The buzz is building for North Carolina Dance Theatre and their new home at Knight Theater. Their Light the Knight gala doesn't happen until January 8, but the crowd at the Belk for NCDT's season opener, Ballet, Ballroom & Bluegrass, was conspicuously larger than opening nights in recent years. People may be itching to see what all the hoo-ha is about.

Not new choreographies, that's for sure. NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux played it conservatively, reprising three road-tested pieces, culminating with his own Shindig, refreshed with the live bluegrass music of Greasy Beans. With the current craze for Dancing With the Stars and assorted TV offspring showing no signs of abating, reprising Twyla Tharp's ballroom celebration of Nine Sinatra Songs was an equally surefire crowdpleaser.

Alonzo King's devoutly abstract MAP, in the middle of the program, is the most adventurous programming we'll see from NCDT until they stage the 2009 edition of Innovative Works at Booth Playhouse in November. I've hailed this King choreography numerous times over the last 11 years, but the presentation keeps getting sharper and more confident each time it is staged.

Three directions on a map? Yes, the work is as mysterious and mesmerizing as the two Arvo P‰rt pieces it is set to -- with a beautiful solo middle section, "Promise," danced to silence by Addul Manzano. The first direction, "Look Up," provides me with an excuse to single out NCDT sophomore Dustin Layton, brandishing two of the quickest feet in town as he partnered with Alessandra Ball and Anna Gerberich. Completing the triptych with "Persist," two of the queens of the troupe, Tracy Gilchest and Rebecca Carmazzi, changed partners and danced respectively with Sasha Janes and David Ingram, two of the company's preeminent princes.

Carmazzi had returned to the Belk stage, after a year devoted to matrimony and motherhood, in the climactic Sinatra song, "That's Life." With mock ferocity, Carmazzi flung real-life partner Janes around the floor to Ol' Blue Eyes' urban shout -- when Janes wasn't giving back as good as he got. Earlier in Tharp's suite, Gilchrest and Ingram went to the opposite extreme, staggering in a tipsy haze to "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)."

Greasy Beans set themselves up on a ledge just below the lip of the stage immediately after MAP. By the time the second intermission ended and Shindig began, they had worked the audience into a joyful hoedown mood. The NCDT guys and gals whooped it up and stoked the festivity even higher, far more acclimated to Bonnefoux's surprising hillbilly moves than they were back in 2003 when Shindig premiered here. Slap my britches!

Spearheaded by resident prankster Mark Diamond, NCDT's kiddie game is stronger than ever. While I didn't catch the impact of Once Upon a Time on either of the matinee crowds last weekend, I could easily gauge its potent anklebiter appeal at a dress rehearsal Thursday afternoon. All was meticulously in place -- except the dancing cow that the cunning Jack swapped for a beanstalk. The costume linking her head with her hindquarters was still in the shop.

Jack soldiered on regardless, bringing down the curtain for Act 1 after suspenseful tellings of "The Frog Prince" and "The Tortoise and the Hare," both heavily laced with Rossini overtures. Act 2 added "The Ugly Duckling," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Peter Pan" to the suite.

Diamond's humor and storytelling throughout are up to his usual high standard. What elevates Once Upon to minor classic status is Diamond's ability to take these six nursery tales -- plus "Snow White" and "The Pied Piper" -- and tie them all up into a raucous ribbon winding its way through the audience at the climax of Act 2. Masterful. Even the little girl and the panto dad reading her all these stories are swept up into the zaniness.

Only a couple of touches are needed to perfect the confection. Gotta have a giant fall out of the sky to end Act 1. Oh yeah, and please fly Peter.

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