Local Arts

At the Ballet: A long-sought strength achieved – and more innovation

Colby Foss in Myles Thatcher’s “Redbird.”
Colby Foss in Myles Thatcher’s “Redbird.” Jeff Cravotta

Charlotte Ballet’s “Innovative Works” haven’t lived up to that name for a while. These concerts have always offered pieces that were new, perhaps thoughtful or entertaining. But in the last years of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s tenure, they relied on familiar faces doing familiar things: the artistic director himself, Dwight Rhoden, Sasha Janes, Mark Diamond, perhaps a former dancer trying his hand as a dancemaker.

Artistic director Hope Muir rolled the dice differently for 2018. She brought in Robyn Mineko Williams, her former Hubbard Street Dance colleague, and Myles Thatcher from San Francisco Ballet. She challenged resident choreographer Janes, now a faculty member at Indiana University, to step outside his comfort zone. The result? A shorter but more satisfying outing at McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance.

Charlotte Ballet_ Choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams’ To Clear_dancers Amel
In Robyn Mineko Williams’ “To Clear”: Amelia Sturt-Dilley, Chelsea Dumas, Alessandra Ball James, Maurice Mouzon Jr. Jeff Cravotta

“To Clear,” the program’s briefest and most abstract piece, begins the show. None of the pieces tell detailed stories, but Williams’ ballet offers no narrative thread beyond her statement that “it’s about relationships.” Even the original score by Robert F. Haynes and Tony Lazzara leaves you wandering through an electronic forest without a well-defined aural path.

Williams explores human interactions: supportive, manipulative, sometimes tender but without, apparently, the possibility of long-term connections. At last, after a “go my own way” solo, a dancer steps off, alone. (Two of the three pieces end with a solitary figure disappearing; the third suggests that an outsider may find a home in the group.)

Charlotte Ballet_ Choreographer Sasha Janes’ The Weight of Darkness_dancer P
Peter Mazurowski in Sasha Janes’ “The Weight of Darkness.” Jeff Cravotta

The program takes on more heft with Janes’ “The Weight of Darkness.” I’ve long wondered what he’d do if he designed a piece in which romance played only a minor part, and this brings the appealing answer.

He still thinks in terms of pas de deux: If eight dancers are onstage, they’ll almost always be in four couples. Yet this work, inspired by Janes hearing that 4 a.m. is the time when people near death often slip away, gives rein to more somber thoughts. His usual lyricism emerges through the duets, but the final image is another lonely walk out of the light.

By intermission, a dance fan will draw two conclusions. First, the men are about as strong as the women, something this company has long wished to achieve. Second, new acquisitions have paid off: Colby Foss and Anson Zwingelberg, both in their first seasons here, make important contributions to “Clear.” Peter Mazurowski, a second-year hire, has a crucial solo in “Weight.” Company veterans get chances to shine: Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall pair off impressively in “Weight,” as do Chelsea Dumas and Ben Ingel. But responsibilities can be spread more evenly now.

Charlotte Ballet_ Choreographer Myles Thatcher’s Redbird_dancer Sarah Lapoin (2)
Charlotte Ballet dancers in Myles Thatcher’s “Redbird.” Jeff Cravotta

Thatcher’s “Redbird” ends the program with even more emotional impact. A woman dressed in a red hoodie (expressive Sarah LaPointe) interacts with spooky, gray-clad people. Thatcher may be exploring the pain an artist feels in a society that doesn’t value him or suggesting that an encounter between a sensitive soul and insensitive others leaves the former bloodied. Perhaps conformity requires one to abandon bright, distinctive plumage.

Yet the gray community exerts an allure: It’s protective of its own and comforting in its repetitive movements. When these folks bring small box lanterns downstage as an invitation to join them in light, the crimson-clad woman accedes. The final moments leave you touched but wondering whether the redbird’s decision may bring her peace and sorrow at the same time.

‘Innovative Works’

When: Through Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance, 701 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25-$80.

Running time: 100 minutes with one intermission.

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