NC Dance Theatre: Love, death and laughter

N.C. Dance Theatre kicked off its season this week with two ballets set in rural parts of the United States. One was choreographed by an Australian, who borrowed most of the music and story from two Frenchmen and relocated “Carmen” to a North Carolina mill town. The other was created by a Russian, who used 19th-century songs in “Western Symphony” to marry classical steps and frontier attitudes.

And if that cultural blending and reinventing doesn’t define “American melting pot,” I don’t know what would.

Artists have altered “Carmen” since Prosper Mérimée published his novel in 1845. Georges Bizet added sympathetic characters in his 1875 opera. Oscar Hammerstein II set the story in a Southern parachute factory during World War II, turning bullfighter Escamillo into boxer Husky Miller. Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso did a 1967 ballet in which Carmen dallies with Jose, Escamillo and Fate itself.

So choreographer Sasha Janes has attached his brand-new version to a long tradition, and it comes up fresh. The beginning is mime-heavy, as he sets up the story: North Carolina millworker Carmen (Melissa Anduiza) leads a strike against a mill owner (Mark Diamond), who summons the National Guard. Guardsman Joe (Naseeb Culpepper) falls for her, but she throws him over for the charismatic baseball player Miller (Pete Leo Walker).

After that, Janes conveys most of the narrative through dance. He uses bits of Bizet’s original music, percussion-heavy reorchestrations by Rodion Shchedrin, even bluegrass tunes by Dorsey Dixon. His choreography is a hybrid of classical and modern steps that shows a keen mind at work.

A ballet for frantic Joe and Micaela (Anna Gerberich), his former sweetheart, turns frightening when he treats the demure girl like a rag doll. A mechanistic scene for factory workers has a grim robotic tone; an exuberant ballet for ballplayers, who rap bats on the floor in time to Shchedrin’s explosive score, gives us a perfect sense of their swagger.

Anduiza makes a playful, mercurial Carmen who probably means no harm but causes it everywhere. When guardsmen arrest her, she laughs, like a kid playing cops and robbers. Her sexuality seems almost unconscious: She responds to men as they like, teasing shy Joe and challenging the extroverted Miller. (She has a wonderful hands-tied-behind-the-back moment with Joe, where her legs speak for her.)

This “Carmen” relies mainly on soloists, but “Western Symphony” needs an agile, tireless ensemble. Patricia McBride, who danced it at New York City Ballet, hasn’t slowed the tempo one iota, and Balanchine’s quick-footed choreography comes off splendidly.

Anyone can enjoy the broad gestures of the “aw-shucks” cowboys and the flirtatious merriment of their ladies. But ballet fans will see that four girls who enter “pulling” a male dancer like ponies resemble cygnets in “Swan Lake,” while a soloist’s fluttering arms echo those of enchanted swan Odette. When Sarah Hayes Watson cuts loose with fouettés in the last movement, she suggests Sleeping Beauty in a saloon-girl tutu. (Costumes re-create the 1954 originals.)

“Western” ends with an audacious gesture I’ve never seen in any other ballet, one only a bold choreographer would choose and a daring company would attempt. NCDT pulled it off with a rousing, easy flair.