Here’s an odd twist: Charlotte Ballet rebrands itself, dropping “N.C. Dance Theatre,” then opens its 2014-15 season Friday at Knight Theater with the most theatrical work in its canon.
Sasha Janes’ “Dangerous Liaisons” needs video screens, composer/cellist Ben Sollee playing live and prerecorded tracks and singing, and a detailed two-page synopsis in the program to tell a story of 18th-century French nobility descending into fatal lust and madness. Once you’ve read that program note, Janes’ choices draw you in. But if you’re a purist, you must be satisfied with the non-narrative choreography of George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.”
The company began with that work, restaged by Patricia McBride. I didn’t see it on its last outing here in 2008, but I doubt the corps or the male soloists could have been as strong then.
Composer Paul Hindemith scored it as a piano concerto, and Balanchine set it that way: Leads in four long variations act as soloists, with the corps providing a kind of “orchestral” accompaniment.
The title refers to the “humors” medieval people believed ruled the body: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric. Those humors inspired solos that were introspective (Jordan Leeper), exuberant (Addul Manzano and Anne Gerberich), constrictively lyrical (Pete Leo Walker) and commanding (Sarah Hayes Harkins).
Baser emotions prevail in “Liaisons.” Sexual aggressors Merteuil (Rebecca Carmazzi Janes, coming out of retirement) and Valmont (Walker) toy with the affections of a count (Manzano), a young wife (Gerberich) and a virgin (Harkins), while the virgin’s foolish mother (Alessandra James) and a naive fencing instructor (Josh Hall) look on.
The climax comes in a pas de duel with foils for Hall and Walker, which builds “Romeo and Juliet” style into a moment for 10 combatants. Before that, we take perverse delight in the machinations of the pantherish Valmont and Merteuil, who’s a cougar in both modern senses of the word (a dangerous predator and a lure for younger men).
“Liaisons” needs acting skills above the norm: Carmazzi Janes’ subtle eye-roll at the edge of the stage when she’s not dancing speaks volumes. So we see in the same program how much ballet can rely on physical grace – and, on occasion, how much it needn’t.