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‘Innovative Works:’ Dance Theatre’s tasty tapas plate

By Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

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  • ‘Innovative Works’

    N.C. Dance Theatre does new pieces by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Mark Diamond, Sasha Janes and Dwight Rhoden.

    WHEN: Through Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Also 7:30 p.m. on two Thursdays (Jan. 23 and 30) and 2 p.m. Feb. 2.

    WHERE: 701 N. Tryon St. (in the Bonnefoux-McBride center).

    RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

    TICKETS: $25-65.

    DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or

I can think of one place in Charlotte where a French-born white guy in his early 70s and a black South Carolinian in his early 30s would be likely to meet as artistic equals, and I was sitting in its headquarters Thursday night.

The collaboration of N.C. Dance Theatre artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and poet-actor Quentin Talley capped the first act of NCDT’s annual “Innovative Works” concert. As dancers Melissa Anduiza and Pete Leo Walker wove physical patterns to Talley’s mystical bits of quoted poetry, Talley came onstage, sliding between and around them while rotating mirrors showed us glimpses of the dancers, then ourselves. “Do you want to evolve?” he asked. “Artist or audience: Which one are you?”

“Transformation” may sound like airy navel-gazing when you read about it, but it cast a spell. These concerts at 701 N. Tryon Theater are always tapas plates, but this year’s provided a wider range of flavors than ever, with Dwight Rhoden’s stick-to-the-ribs climax – a work called “Sit In Stand Out” – supplying weightier food for thought.

NCDT sells the most tickets to “Nutcracker,” probably pleases the widest audience with its big story ballets (”Cinderella” comes in March) and satisfies connoisseurs with George Balanchine (this year’s “Western Symphony”) and Jiri Kylian (“Forgotten Land,” coming in April). But the company seems to let its hair down most with the Innovative Works programs, which take place literally in its living room at Tenth and Tryon streets.

These are family affairs: The shows feature in-house choreographers, and you get the feeling they’re aiming to please themselves (and perhaps the dancers they use) and hope audiences will grab hold and ride along.

Mark Diamond kicked off the current installment with the aptly-named “Contrast.” Versatile guitarist Troy Conn sat at one edge of the stage, changing guitars as the work changed moods. He played the blues for a quartet consisting of an aloof man and three women trying to entice him; he shifted to classical music during a quick, tender duet for Walker and Anna Gerberich, then thrashed into a metal solo that reflected the combative attitude of the dancers. Chelsea Dumas and Josh Hall swung gently through a tender jazz finale, hinting at ballroom steps when Conn played a lilting “All the Things You Are.”

Sasha Janes couldn’t find a local violinist willing to take on the monumental chaconne from Bach’s second violin partita, so he used a recording. His real collaborator in “Chaconne” was the unnamed person who came up with the back curtain, a series of ribbons that closed and parted to let dancers appear and disappear suddenly. They were like the melody of the chaconne itself, which peeps at us among Bach’s permutations.

The program credited not only Bonnefoux but his dancers as choreographers of “Transformation.” (It looked semi-improvised but surely wasn’t.) If that piece was the most metaphysical, Rhoden’s was the most physical.

“Sit In” began with dancers studying photographs from Levine Museum of the New South’s permanent collection and its “Focus on Justice” exhibit. Those seemed to come from a distant time, when Ku Klux Klansmen in white robes picketed the Visulite Theatre for showing the 1957 “Island in the Sun,” with its lone interracial kiss. Yet these shots still have power, and they seemed to inflame the dancers, who depicted anger, grief, frenzy and fear to the furious drumming of Max Roach or Nina Simone’s slow, agonized rendition of “Strange Fruit.”

Half an hour is a long time to sustain one mood, especially a mood of unrelieved angst. Rhoden doesn’t offer optimism in this piece, but perhaps he doesn’t have to: The tireless dancers on stage varied in hue from porcelain pink to honey-colored to cafe au lait, and that rainbow of skin tones tells us how far we’ve come.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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