N.C. Dance Theatre for 2013-14: Long story ballets, short masterworks

“Tell me a story.” That’s the first cultural demand a child makes and, for many audience members, a need that never goes away. N.C. Dance Theatre has kept that need in mind for its 2013-14 season, in which every program except the “Innovative Works” anthology will be anchored by a story ballet.

Sometimes, as in the case of the “Nutcracker” and “Cinderella” choreographed by artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, those pieces will fill an evening.

Sometimes familiar narratives balance unfamiliar, plotless classics: The world premiere of Sasha Janes’ “Carmen,” set in a mill village in the1930s, is paired with George Balanchine’s “Western Symphony.” Dwight Rhoden’s updated “Othello” will be linked to Jiri Kylian’s “Forgotten Land.”

But either way, stories will be paramount. Bonnefoux says this idea stems from the nature of the company – which, after all, has “theatre” in its name – and the wishes of ticket-buyers.

“We do them to show the dancers’ strengths,” he says. “(Stories) can help the audience, which has something to follow. They’re also important for choreographers.

“Sasha was inspired by the idea to set ‘Carmen’ in North Carolina. He got interested in labor strikes and confrontations between the police and the union. It’s still the ‘Carmen’ we know; she works in a factory, Don Jose arrests her. But he’s a policeman now, and Escamillo (a bullfighter in Georges Bizet’s opera) is a baseball player.”

Pairing shorter ballets with works of roughly an hour, such as “Carmen” and Rhoden’s “Othello” – which turns Shakespeare’s characters into 21st-century rock-‘n’-rollers – lets Bonnefoux program works to which he has a powerful personal connection.

He and associate artistic director Patricia McBride danced for Balanchine for years at New York City Ballet, and she’ll set “Western Symphony” here. Bonnefoux says he has waited a long time to do a piece by Kylian, for whom he hoped to dance near the end of his career in the 1970s. (Injuries prevented him, but he did teach Kylian’s dancers while on a sabbatical from Indiana University.)

“People don’t always know how to write about him,” says Bonnefoux of the Czech choreographer, whose “Forgotten Land” is inspired by and based on a painting by Edvard Munch. “It’s modern dance, it’s ballet….It tells a story, but without (specific characters).

“He’s a little harder to follow, but we can risk a Kylian or a Balanchine piece people don’t know with an ‘Othello’ or ‘Carmen.’ ”

NCDT won’t rest between now and September. The company performs in Washington, D.C., next week in a Ballet Across America series; Kennedy Center audiences will see Janes’ “Rhapsodic Dances.” Then it assumes company-in-residence status at Chautauqua Institution in New York, where Bonnefoux founded the dance program in 1989.

When it returns to Charlotte, it’ll be stronger by four dancers: Two in the first company, which is up to 18, and two in the second, which increases to eight.

“We needed more dancers in the first company, because using the whole company in every show isn’t good. It’s not comfortable for rehearsals, and a big piece (such as “Western Symphony”) takes more people,” says Bonnefoux.

The dancers in the second company will come as part of a three-year program in which Dance Theatre of Harlem sends NCDT two dancers each year. That effort is funded by Step Up, a Dance Theatre committee raising money to make the troupe more racially diverse.

“You don’t always get a wide range of dancers when you hold auditions,” says Bonnefoux. “This helps our company look more like America.”