State of the Art

Live jazz at Charlotte Ballet? Count me in.

Gloria Reuben, best known as an actress for “ER,” has also cut two solo albums as a jazz singer.
Gloria Reuben, best known as an actress for “ER,” has also cut two solo albums as a jazz singer. Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

Imagine a concert where you watch ballet dancers leap across a movie screen while a live orchestra plays in the theater pit. Weird, no? Yet we accept the reverse without comment. Live dancers perform to canned scores at all but the largest dance companies in America, moving in perfect and unvarying coordination to a soundtrack.

Charlotte Ballet has successfully fought that paradigm over the years, from live bluegrass by The Greasy Beans with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s “Shindig” to composer/cellist Ben Sollee’s performance with Sasha Janes’ “Dangerous Liaisons.”

The troupe breaks the prerecorded mold again this week: Singer Gloria Reuben will join Pittsburgh’s MCG Jazz for the world premiere of a piece by Dwight Rhoden in the Spring Works program at Knight Theater.

The other pieces, George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” and Janes’ “We Danced Through Life,” will have conventional recorded music. But Rhoden’s will be enhanced by Reuben, who launched a vocal career in 2000 backing up Tina Turner, and MCG, which includes Grammy-winning music director Marty Ashby and performers from the bands of Wynton Marsalis and Paul Simon. (If Reuben’s name sounds familiar, maybe you know her as an Emmy nominee from “ER.”)

Dancers can tell you the pros and cons of performing to live music. On one hand, it’s a little riskier. Nobody’s going to embark on an extended jam, throwing a performance off course, but individual notes may be held a fraction longer or bent a little in the playing. Dancers have to be ready for that; their brains can never go on autopilot, the way they might when dancing to a score heard exactly the same way over and over.

On the other hand, performances invariably seem fresher. Musicians become partners, not mere accompanists. If they sound extra sassy or upbeat or blue on a given evening, the dancers can reflect that in their interpretations. Dancers connect better with what they’re hearing, so we connect better with what we’re seeing and hearing. That’s a lucky break for any audience.

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