N.C. Dance Theatre pushes ballet to its limits

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Doug Singleton, artistic and executive directors of N.C. Dance Theatre, appeared before the curtain of Thursday’s show to say the company’s name is being changed to Charlotte Ballet.

They couldn’t have chosen a better night: Jiri Kylian’s “Forgotten Land” and Dwight Rhoden’s “Othello” illustrated how far dance can get from the classical tradition and still deserve that name. Ballet isn’t just a big tent; it’s nearly infinite.

The company has never done Kylian, and that made its collective aplomb in this fast, difficult piece more amazing. The dancers, in groups from two to a dozen, looked like birds instantly following the change in a leader’s direction. They moved through loss, longing and struggle as if they shared one consciousness.

Kylian merges modern technique (a strong core in the body, fall-and-recovery motions) with classical extensions for arms and legs. He never makes pretty pictures; dancers hit a pose for a split-second and whirl through to the next gesture. Only when Melissa Anduiza, Jamie Dee Clifton and Anna Gerberich seek shelter in each other’s arms do they (and we) rest at last.

“Othello,” which premiered here in 2009, loosely adapts Shakespeare’s plot to the modern music industry. It’s a ballet about excess, about people who feel entitled to everything and satiated by nothing. (No wonder it ends in bullets.)

Rhoden has stripped away race, age and foreignness as barriers between Othello (Pete Leo Walker) and Desdemona: They’re undone purely by his jealousy and Iago’s bitterness, expressed in a Laurie Anderson-style electronic voiceover at times. Even Cassio, danced sensitively by Jordan Leeper as an unwilling outcast, gets scathed.

The nearly nonstop motion makes us feel we’re in a club. Othello gets the only extended solo, an athletic outpouring of pain, but the character with the largest part (as in the play) is Iago.

Naseeb Culpepper wears a demented grin that suggests Batman’s Joker out of makeup; he’s alluring and freakish, and the choreography implies the others are his puppets. He even seems to “conduct” the jagged music, including Arun Luthra’s fine live saxophone solos.

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