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Unannounced for their 2017-18 season, Charlotte Ballet's Choreographic Lab bloomed for an evening in the fall, quickly sold out, and vanished. Announced, expanded to three nights, and pre-publicized, a new edition of the program has opened, 18 months later, at the Patricia McBride/Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, ready for primetime and ready for reviews. In its previous iteration, Hope Muir had been on board as the company's new artistic director for only a couple of months. So the 2019 presentation, with eight new choreographies, offered a more authoritative picture of what Lab is and what its potential can be. Both struck me as mighty impressive.
All of the new pieces were choreographed in-house by dancers in the Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II troupes – with the exception of "Saxy Thang," a collaboration between Martha Connerton and Charlotte Ballet II, and a piece by assistant stage director Sarah Ingel. In most instances, then, these were not merely the first performances of new works, these were the first works on public view from fledgling choreographers. Although there were no credits in the program for costume design or lighting, these elements weren't neglected. Not only does the audience get to see new works brought to us with production values beyond the workshop/rehearsal hall level, but the dancers making their forays into choreography also get a chance to see whether this kind of creative work can be part of their afterlives when their all-too-brief performing careers are done.
From my vantage point, there were plenty of reasons for optimism. While it's uncertain how much assistance came from Muir and her staff, some of whom are accomplished choreographers, none of the pieces wobbled on opening night when put upon their feet. A slideshow greeted us as we entered the Center for Dance studio, each visual announcing one of the titles with a photo of the dancer/choreographer and an applicable quote. Adding to the polish of the presentation, two of the dancer/choreographers, Chelsea Dumas and Andrès Trezevant, representing each of the two troupes, spoke to us in a nicely-produced prefatory video.
The first piece, Dumas' "Sonnet 116," seemed calculated to create the best first impression possible. Set to a reading of Shakespeare's sonnet by Dame Judi Dench, with music by Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser, the work left us with something to chew on as the last of the 11 dancers left the stage. Dumas had the pair dancing to Dench's reading moving rather jerkily, sometimes robotically, so there was a noticeable relaxation when the music took over and another couple entered and began moving with a more lyrical, romantic flow. Relapses into jerkiness happened whenever snatches of Dench's reading were replayed, underscoring key thoughts in the love poem. The effect was to color the large-group segment that ended the piece, where we saw a noticeable change in partners. Hadn't Dame Judi just told us, more than once, that "Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds?" If that isn't true, the Bard strongly rebuked, "I never writ nor no man ever loved."
While assuring me that this Lab was definitely going to be good, "116" left me wondering if the works that hadn't been chosen for the coveted lead-off position would be as good. Two of the three before intermission were set to familiar songs, beginning with the fascinating set of pas de deux by James Kopecky, "Separation." Following the inexorable logic of La Ronde, one of the partners remained onstage for each new dance until the circle was completed and all had danced twice with different partners. Once James Blake's cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" was danced by Sarah Lapointe and Jared Sutton, it was Sutton who remained, joined by Karlee Vadalabene-Donley for Jason Gould's rendition of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean?" What most of us didn't realize was that all the dancers in this circle had already appeared, so when we heard Robyn Sherwell's cover of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" – the first song not sung by a man, with a lyric that most explicitly addressed separation – two women were dancing, Vadalabene-Donley and Lapointe, to a curiously halting performance.
The main reason we didn't anticipate how the logic of Kopecky's "Separation" would fulfill itself was the way Charlotte Ballet presented the flow of the show, never bringing up the lights even slightly between pieces. By the time the five dancers for Maurice Mouzon Jr.'s "6" appeared onstage, most of the audience probably had no idea which of the pieces was being performed – and they certainly couldn't be puzzling over the three subtitles that Kopecky had attached to the three songs he had set in his very fine work. From my aisle seat, I was able to dip my program under the light of the nearby staircase to keep track, but other folks were relying on their night vision if they were curious – and "6" isn't the biggest of boldface targets to see in the dark. The Mouzon piece, set to solo piano music by Dustin O'Halloran, was our first indication that costuming would be a major ingredient, and I loved the white outfits worn by the dancers. Mouzon took advantage of the asymmetries inherent in grouping his five dancers. The moments of silence in the middle of the piece had a secret precision to them, for the music resumed with the dancer still in motion and exactly on cue. Mouzon's intentional repetitions, especially when a couple of dancers formed an arch for the other to pass through, pleased me less.
Following the precision and chaste grace of Mouzon's "6," Connerton's "Saxy Thang (Part I)" looked comparatively sloppy and freewheeling. Lights came up on the eight Charlotte Ballet II dancers seated upstage on folding chairs. What they performed was definitely structured, cued by the odd medley of tunes performed by Derek Brown, whose tenor sax was sparsely accompanied on the opening movement of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, Sting's "Every Breath You Take," and Ben E. King's "Stand by Me." When the recorded performance started jamming on the Bach piece, it became clear that irreverent fun was a prime objective. Nevertheless, I would have liked Connerton to impose a better balance between choreographed control and improvisatory chaos. Among the CB2 dancers, Victoria Jaenson and Sutton emerged for me as standouts.
There were no settings to songs after intermission and no readily familiar music – unless you had recently spun or streamed Francis Poulenc's Piano Sonata for Four Hands. Yet I found all these works at least as appealing as the pieces on the opening half of the program, even if they were less easily described and analyzed. "One Hundred Ways to Say No" by assistant stage manager Sarah Ingel had the splashiest production values of the night, eye-popping costumes in different colors and dramatic lighting effects. Juwan Alston's setting for the Poulenc, "A Road to Pieces," was easily the most exquisite pas de deux of the night, featuring Sarah Hayes Harkins and David Preciado, frustrating me only because it was so short. Please continue, Juwan!
As a result of Alston's brevity, Trezevant's "Dalur" – the Icelandic word for "valley," of course – emerged as the moodiest pas de deux of the night, spotlighting Peter Mazurowski and Elizabeth Truell. Literally spotlighting, since Mazurowski began in the larger of two spotlit areas on the stage and Truell entered into a smaller light near the wing. The second of the two music tracks was by "A Winged Victory for the Sullen," an accurate barometer of how cheery it all was. We ended on a more upbeat and teeming work, Harkins' "Essence of Numbers," with original music composed for the piece by Jared Oaks, the music director of Ballet West. In this fascinating hybrid of classic and modern styles, Harkins and Oaks seem to have settled on a three-part structure, the first seemingly recorded on a beat-up upright piano – honkytonk timbre – before the onset of more flowing music and a grand piano sound. The liveliness of the piece would have been better served by brighter lighting. I strained to identify Josh Hall among the eight dancers and accepted the presence of Alessandra Ball James on faith alone after the lights came up and I confirmed her name in the program.
This program repeats through the 18th. See our sidebar for details.