Opening night shows versatility

N.C. Dance Theatre's season-opening program displays the versatility of Russian-born, American choreographer George Balanchine, the company's dancers and Traci Gilchrest.

In “Timeless Ballets by Balanchine,” which premiered Thursday evening and runs through Saturday, all moods and styles are represented. Yet each of the three ballets employs touches that are pure Balanchine – from the distinct position of the arm to the precise tilt of the head.

Character-shifter Gilchrest dances a leading role in all three.

The only disappointment on Thursday night was the sparse attendance – entire rows were empty in the half-filled Belk Theater.

The evening began with the classical “Raymonda Variations,” a 1961 tribute to 19th-century choreographer Marius Petipa. The women dressed in white tutus recall an earlier dance era, but Balanchine's inventions and rhythmic shifts move Petipa into a new century.

Members of the corps are showcased in a series of variations. Sarah Hayes Watson and Sarah James – in their first season with the company – along with returning dancers Seia Rassenti, Kara Wilkes, Anna Gerberich and N.C. Dance Theatre 2's Carolina Rendon Okolova bring energy to their solos.

The pas de deux of Addul Manzano, the dance's lone male, and Gilchrest emphasizes the dancers' strength. In the coda, featuring the entire ensemble, the focus is on speed, and a finale with Gilchrest suspended in Manzano's arms.

After the first intermission, the curtain opens on the lush sets and colorful costumes of “La Sonnambula,” which premiered in 1946. This rare Balanchine story ballet sets a mood of mystery and menace.

A poet is encircled by a flirtatious coquette until he is mesmerized by a beautiful sleepwalker. David Ingram is a romantic poet – what other kind is there – and Gilchrest, en pointe, floats across the stage as the elusive sleepwalker. Wilkes is a dramatic coquette, teasing and taunting with every jealous step.

Their story is in contrast to the frivolous entertainments, with Randolph Ward's twirling, loose-limbed Harlequin, a favorite of the crowd at the ball and in the Belk Theater.

The Charlotte Symphony's dramatic interpretation of the score, by Vittorio Rieti after themes of Bellini, completes the effect.

The evening's final dance, “The Four Temperaments” (1946), seems modern even now, with its mix of classical steps and angular moves, and dancers dressed in simple black and white practice clothes.

The ballet's main sections are inspired by the four medieval temperaments: Melancholic (Ingram); Sanguinic (Gerberich and Sasha Janes); Phlegmatic (Jhe Russell), and Choleric (Gilchrest).

As NCDT president Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux says, the meaning is “all there in the steps.”

Balanchine would be proud of the restaging of his work by former New York City Ballet star and NCDT's associate artistic director Patricia McBride.

Perhaps in the remaining performances, there will more of an audience to enjoy it.