Theater review: Contemporary Fusion

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Charlotte's most esteemed performing arts company, North Carolina Dance Theatre, finished their 42nd season with Contemporary Fusion, a trio of challenging, colorful works performed with their customary flair. Now that doesn't sound particularly dramatic until you consider that, on top of the retirements and exits of a cluster of NCDT's best dancers before the season began, two of their aces, Addul Manzano and Pete Walker, were out of action for the finale due to injuries. In fact, Walker's injury occurred on the same afternoon that I saw NCDT's first-night performance - and he had roles in all three dances.

Sasha Janes Rhapsodic Dances with Sarah Hayes Watson & Pete Walker (Photo credit: Jeff Cravotta)
  • Sasha Janes' "Rhapsodic Dances" with Sarah Hayes Watson & Pete Walker (Photo credit: Jeff Cravotta)

Less than three hours before the curtain went up, Walker's status was still questionable. What happened shortly afterwards is doubly impressive, for the program demonstrated how superbly the company reloaded for the season and how swiftly they retooled for the night. Gregory DeArmond, David Morse, and Ben Ingel were the guys who stepped up.

Repairs all looked so seamless and effortless. Perhaps the dance that best demonstrated NCDT's resilience was Twyla Tharp's "The Golden Section." Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre first brought Tharp's athletic confection to Belk Theater in 2008, with its glittery backdrop and all-gold costumes - yes, even the shoes - by Santo Loquasto. The tumbling, twirling, leaping, and throwing were an energetic mix of gymnastic and cheerleading routines, set to a suite of four rockabilly tunes by David Byrne. But ultimately, I found the Ailey celebration tedious and repetitious.

NCDT took up the piece almost exactly two years ago, bringing it Knight Theater as part of "An Evening of Women Choreographers." Suddenly the piece looked risky and dangerous with all its assorted aerial feats. The 2013 reprise nearly reverted to tedium, the last result I expected. Six of the 13 dancers slated to perform were new to the company and two others hadn't been with the company the first time they attempted Golden Striker. Walker was only to play a minor role, but with seven men needed onstage and Manzano also on the injured list, the math wouldn't work if NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux had to rely solely on his core troupe of eight men and eight women.

He didn't. Like Ailey and the mammoth New York City Ballet, where he and associate artistic director Patricia McBride reached the pinnacle of their careers, Bonnefoux has an apprentice NCDT2 company that grooms future members of the varsity and comes in quite handy in emergencies like this. So it was Ingel to the rescue, fitting in perfectly with the rest of the ensemble. While I suspect some risk reduction took place, the audience was still wildly captivated by the glitter and effervescence.

What preceded was even more successful artistically, including a revival of "Rhapsodic Dances" from Sasha Janes and the world premiere of the Bubenicek Brothers' "L'heure Bleue," commissioned by NCDT. Setting his piece on Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," Janes indulged in his own personal fusion of the sensual and the classical, deploying five couples, easily distinguished by the matching colors of their costumes.

Shining most brightly were the tenured female dancers, Sarah Hayes Watson, Anna Gerberich, and Jamie Dee. Watson found the spotlight in the most balletic moments of the piece, and her work en pointe - and the purity of her line - has probably never been surpassed in this company. Furthermore, she's utterly fearless leaping or falling into the outstretched arms of her partner. Previously on a track toward monopolizing all the soubrette roles in the company, Gerberich has evolved a flowing sensual dimension to widen her personable appeal. The music and Janes' choreography helped it bloom.

Yet it was Dee who literally drew the brightest spotlight, dancing to the familiar Variation #18. As the pre-recorded orchestra swelled into it, the chandeliers hovering over the action throughout the piece suddenly burned far brighter than before, a fine effect beautifully timed by lighting designer John P. Woodey. Dee certainly didn't eclipse the elegance that Traci Gilchrest brought to the moment when she premiered this dance in 2010, but there was a continental mystery to Dee's work that was no less pleasing.

For its sheer uniqueness and fun, "L'heure Bleue" was a megahit. Yet this second installment in NCDT's "Bubenicek Project" had a couple of striking characteristics in common with the brothers' "Le Souffle de l'esprit," performed at the Knight early in 2011. Both works set up with art frames, bringing us into a formal, museum-like atmosphere. Last time, it was an enlarged detail from a DaVinci drawing, with more of the master's work to follow, emphasis on the Virgin Mary. This time, Otto Bubenicek's design called for two frames suspended above the stage, one containing a sword and the other framing a stemmed rose. A third frame was onstage with Jordan Leeper inside it.

Once again, twin brother Jiri Bubenicek relied on baroque music for sustaining the mood in his choreography, leaning more on Bach this time and discarding Pachelbel. But as Leeper became involved in a Parisian love triangle, Jiri's dance interacted with Otto's frames, and the mood - very different from the Paul Taylor chastity of Le Souffle - became more whimsical and comical. There was wicked duplicity between the rivals, but by the time we reached the swordplay, we knew the duel was just for laughs.

That's because of the previous Bleue tableaus, where Leeper and his rival Gregory Taylor interacted directly with each other while enclosed in frames at opposite ends of the stage. Between them was the biggest frame in the scenic design, where three women were lounging. Nevertheless, when Leeper's rival would reach toward the ladies to hand him something, an impersonating hand from behind a curtain would appear at an impossible distance inside Leeper's frame, thanks to some comically clunky sleight-of-hand. The Bubenicek's built a whole shtick from this silliness.

All bets were off when the guy in the toga inexplicably invaded this frothy, frilly love triangle. They all lived happily ever after, frozen genially in a decorous tableau when the music and dance were done. Inside that big picture frame, of course.

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