Local Arts

DJ takes stage with dancers at Charlotte Ballet

Ben Ingel, left, and Sarah Hayes Harkins watch themselves in the mirrors as choreographer Dwight Rhoden looks on. Charlotte Ballet’s Contemporary Fusion opens Thursday at Knight Theater.
Ben Ingel, left, and Sarah Hayes Harkins watch themselves in the mirrors as choreographer Dwight Rhoden looks on. Charlotte Ballet’s Contemporary Fusion opens Thursday at Knight Theater. jkomer@charlotteobserver.com

Dancers are lined up in pairs along the left side of Charlotte Ballet’s uptown rehearsal studio. Tense harpsichord music creates a sense of suspense as each couple steps and glides across the room in succession, forming an arc.

Standing at the front of the room, resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden nods to DJ Fannie Mae – a young woman in a loose, mustard-colored shirt and porkpie hat – to cue the music again as the dancers scramble back to their positions.

A few minutes later, the harpsichord music has vanished, and male dancers emerge “walking sloped over, pigeon-toed” (as Rhoden describes it) as they ease toward the front of the room to a beat-driven track.

Their work will culminate Thursday, when Charlotte Ballet debuts three ballets that merge elements of traditional ballet with modern themes, ideas and music. “Spun to the Sky,” a collaboration between Rhoden and Mae, finds Mae onstage with the dancers, mixing music live.

It’s not an orchestra in a pit, but the live music element fits the idea of “Contemporary Fusion” just as DJ culture is finding wider acceptance in both the mainstream and in the arts.

“Contemporary Fusion” also features artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s “Danses Brilliantes” – a nod to his time with the Paris Opera Ballet – and Mark Godden’s “Angels in the Architecture,” which pairs composer Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” with the story of the Shakers.

Bonnefoux approached Rhoden with the idea of using a DJ onstage. The dancers and stage director recommended Mae, who hosts bi-weekly live art and music events at The Showroom Gallery on North Tryon Street. Mae had never worked with a dance company before, and Rhoden had worked with a DJ only once (a short beat-oriented piece at his company in New York), but the two found a common vision.

‘Messing with boundaries’

“My concept was that I wanted to create a work that moved from one energy to another energy,” Rhoden says. “There are stories inside, but it’s not a narrative story or one character we follow throughout. There are issues and an emotional content to some of the pieces. I didn’t want the piece to be about anything specific except to honor each piece of music with a real visual picture that I wanted to represent the music.

“We could have just had great club music. She’s got pieces of music that would be amazing, but we didn’t want to keep it to one thing, because I like messing with boundaries. Music is my favorite thing … to make scores and mix stuff up and really play around,” Rhoden says, pointing to one section he titled “Spun to the Sky.”

“There’s a sense of fantasy to it. At times there’s a heightened emotion. ‘Spun to the Sky’ is the idea of spinning music, but taking it to a higher elevated place and having no limits because you have baroque music into Bach, then a beat drops in. A big challenge are the transitions and switching those vibes. Even if it’s unexpected, you still want it to be fluid.”

The concept spoke to Mae.

“That is me as a DJ,” she says. “You come to one of my parties or events, I want to take you on a ride. I want to take you to middle school. I want to take you to high school. I want to take you to your first kiss, your first dance. It’s truly an extension of me and Dwight with his classical training. Adding myself to a more structured setting is my challenge.”

The project reflects Rhoden’s history in dance, which also bridges the traditional and contemporary.

“My beginning was not formal. I didn’t take my first dance class until I was 18. We’d have school dances and weekly dance contests, and I was always the first one to enter. I was always making up my own routine to show off for the week,” Rhoden says.

He was so encouraged by his peers’ reactions that he went on to study dance. “I found ballet later.”

Classical foundation

Although this contemporary piece mixes musical and visual styles and references, “Contemporary Fusion” is still rooted in tradition.

“I always say the classical foundations that are a part of my training are there to liberate me. People think sometimes training and technique bounds you in a box, but in my point of view it’s something that can free it up. You have the tools to turn things inside out, twist it here, fold it there,” Rhoden says.

“It’s just like jazz musicians who will take a melody and stretch the note, bend the note, fold the note. That’s what I try to do with movement. I know the basics and now am trying to discover something new.”

Courtney’s blog: cltsoundbites.blogspot.com

‘Contemporary Fusion’

Charlotte Ballet ends its 2014-15 season with works by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Mark Godden and Dwight Rhoden.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $25-$85.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.

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