Local Arts

Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works thoughtfully mixes dance movement with literature

Dancers Elisabeth Baehman, Elizabeth Truell, Shaina Wire and Chelsea Dumas in Peter Chu’s “Let Be,” in Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works, “Shakespeare Reinvented.”
Dancers Elisabeth Baehman, Elizabeth Truell, Shaina Wire and Chelsea Dumas in Peter Chu’s “Let Be,” in Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works, “Shakespeare Reinvented.”

It’s a pleasure to see ballet dancers do things that scare them. Not leaping and lifting, which terrify no one with proper technique, but speaking lines. Stopping to do non-dance behavior, such as taking off a corset. Acting throughout a piece with full face and body, rather than assuming attitudes (beatific princess, forlorn suitor) or embodying basic emotions.

Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works, retooled this year by artistic director Hope Muir to match out-of-town choreographers with UNC-Charlotte literary experts, offers that pleasure in both halves. “Shakespeare Reinvented,” which runs for three weeks at McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance, gives glimpses into five plays – four in the first half, one in the shorter second – in ways that are accessible or baffling but seldom dull.

Stephanie Martinez came from Chicago to work with Lynne Conner (who’s credited with concept and direction) on “Unsex Me Here.” That imprecation by Lady Macbeth, in which she asks unholy spirits to take away her femininity so she can help to kill King Duncan, begins with a voiceover during a disturbing solo by Alessandra Ball James.

What follows, often light-hearted and benignly funny, asks interesting questions: If Shakespeare’s men and women had lives beyond the plays, what would those be? What happens when a man, danced with disarming charm by Peter Mazurowski, tries to get inside both a woman’s garments and her head? (Actors at Shakespeare’s all-male Globe Theatre figured that out every day.)

On rare occasions, Martinez overworks an idea: The combative section for men reinforces a stereotype, though the graceful one for women does not. The piece ends with a beautiful moment for all eight performers, who dress alike and cast gender stereotypes aside to delight in each other’s company.

Its main strength comes from duets where couples treat each other as equals: swooningly joyful Romeo and Juliet (Ben Ingel and Sarah Hayes Harkins), magically bewildered Titania and Bottom (Sarah Lapointe and Mazurowski), proudly self-assured Kate and Petruchio (Amelia Sturt-Dilley and James Kopecky) and the ambition-poisoned Macbeths (James and Drew Grant). Remember what I said about acting? Grant shows Macbeth’s weakness and panic with one queasy look.

“Let Be” teams choreographer Peter Chu (last year’s “Rite of Spring”) with Andrew Hartley. Program notes and a pre-performance video say they sought links between their respective cultures, integrating notions of Chinese movement and mind-body connectedness with the journey Hamlet makes from melancholy to calm resignation.

This notion doesn’t lend itself well to dance. It must be buttressed too frequently by text, in which chunks of Hamlet’s speeches – abridged, out of context or mashed up from different scenes – are spoken awkwardly by one dancer or a group. Half an hour seems a long time to watch angst slowly resolve into acceptance (“The readiness is all”) that doesn’t look much different.

Chu has some clever ideas. He makes percussive, rhythmic use of fans, which resemble Elizabethan collars when held near dancers’ necks. Characters exchange positions and even garments subtly, perhaps to show they’re all fragments of Hamlet’s personality. Yet Chu sticks with a limited movement vocabulary, most of it sinuous and slow, and doesn’t characterize any individuals. Sometimes a picture isn’t worth a thousand words, if they’re Shakespeare’s.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

Innovative Works

WHEN: Through Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Feb. 2, 9 and 16.

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

TICKETS: $25-$65. Tickets include a dessert reception with dancers and artistic staff after the show.

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