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Dancing Cinema: NC Dance Theatre’s A Night at the Movies

by Kate Dobbs Ariail

March 5, 2009, Charlotte, NC: The North Carolina Dance Theatre premiered two new works by guest choreographers and presented a recent piece by another under the rubric of A Night at the Movies in the Booth Playhouse of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. The program is a fascinating examination of three types of cinematic art through the mode of dance.

The evening centers on the new work by resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden, Dirty Truth and Pretty Lies, a dance-theatre transfiguration of the film version of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. While familiarity with the play, and even more, with the 1958 film, with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, make the experience of Rhoden’s dance richer, they are not necessary to appreciate it. Rhoden has an instinct for prying open the emotions in the characters whose shifting relationships he lays out in his fast-changing choreographic maps; and in the ten scenes of Dirty Truth, he takes his can opener to Pollitt family in crisis. Whether we knew them before or not, we will know them down to the core by the time Rhoden is through with them.

The dancers of North Carolina Dance Theatre respond to this artistic peeling with the kind of emotional intensity we’ve come to expect. Thursday night, David Ingram consumed most of the oxygen in the room and left scorch marks on the stage as Brick. Waving his liquor bottle around, he moved with alternating ferocity and fatalism through Rhoden’s patterns of rage, sexual repression and drunken fear. Kara Wilkes as Maggie was not quite his equal in intensity, but she evinced sustained bursts of both fire and cold determination, along with an unflagging sensuality. Sarah James was vivid and electric as Mae, and Dustin Layton, strong as Gooper. Randolph Ward, in a red and white football uniform, managed to be heartbreaking as Skipper, flitting through the background again and again. Jhe W. Russell, slim though he is, and Seia Rassenti, tiny though she is, were quite strong as Big Daddy and Big Momma — once again demonstrating Rhoden’s talent for eliciting fresh responses by means of his unexpected choices.

The work starts off more slowly than many of Rhoden’s dances, giving time for the characters to develop and the passions to build; it is therefore successful as narrative storytelling, although the emotional arc remains the more important aspect. The minimal scenic design, the costuming, and the excellent lighting by Michael Korsch reinforce the emotional volatility. As usual, Rhoden has put together a surprising collage of musics that also enhance the emotional journey, and he has added only a few fillips of the verbal: here and there throughout the dance, a projected quote from the film will appear on the back wall — white typewriter words floating behind the stage’s smoky atmosphere, barely seen, like words from an invisible speaker passing by. Rhoden’s success at drawing out the danceable core of the cinematic Cat — at bringing it back to the stage, even while nodding to its literary basis — makes me eagerly anticipate his forthcoming Othello, to be set on the NCDT for May performances.

Guest choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s extraordinary Spellbound by Beauty abstracts even further from his Hitchcockian source materials than Rhoden does from Tennessee Williams in order to get closer — not to the stories, but to the artist. Fonte finds the commonalities in three of Alfred Hitchcock’s dark films — Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds (the music is Bernard Herrmann’s, from the first two) — and uses them to build a kind of biography of the artist and his obsessions. Like Rhoden, Fonte is a former principal dancer from a great company, and he thinks like a dancer, in a truly kinetic language, which he sets loose in a field of visual symbols. There is some gorgeous dancing in every one of the work’s nine scenes, and as in a Hitchcock film, there are numerous moments of dark shivers. Spellbound by Beauty, with its interest in the kind of destructive lust Hitchcock often showed towards his (blonde) protagonists, is definitely creepy, the beauty of its dance sequences only making it more so.

The superb cast on Thursday was led, as Hitchcock, by Justin VanWeest, who in his fourth season with the company is showing greater strength, maturity and elegance of line. He is abetted by young Tyler Haritan from the NCDT School as the young Hitchcock in a remarkably communicative staging device — the youth prowls behind the man; he is the shadow that surrounds the limelit figure of the impresario. At times they cause the hair to stand up on your arms. David Ingram makes another amazing appearance, but the glory belongs more to the women, especially Traci Gilchrest, who changes her character completely when she changes her wig and shoes. Spellbound by Beauty is an extremely sophisticated ballet, in concept, structure and choreography. Undoubtedly, Fonte is fed by his experience as an international artist, working with companies around the world. He has made a dark reverberant dance amplifying on Hitchcock — not a gloss on a pop culture phenomenon — and it is not done from a provincial or even strictly American viewpoint. That the piece can be so well interpreted by the NCDT dancers is another mark of the company’s worldly sophistication.

The evening opens with a less-successful work by NCDT’s Mark Diamond, who did not get far enough from his source materials for Immortal Design. It is not just inspired by the 1934 black and white film Death Takes a Holiday, it is overwhelmed by that film, which is projected on the back wall throughout much of the dance. The film’s dialogue (and hissing soundtrack) don’t do anything good for the beautiful Brahms that’s trying to make itself heard. The dancers, like the film, also in glorious black and white, are often difficult to see, and the huge film projection makes the stage feel cramped and shallow. This is really unfortunate, because there are some absolutely ravishing duets between David Ingram (Death) and Traci Gilchrest (Grazia). Diamond devised a wonderful lift sequence in which she is rolled into a ball and unfurls over Ingram’s head, like a jasmine pearl opening in a teacup. What a visual metaphor for a woman in love! The reversal — the contracting sequences once she recognizes Death for who he is — are nearly as powerful, and the beauty of the last pas de deux makes me hope that this dance is reworked to reveal more of such exquisite moments.

This unusual program emphasizes the versatility of the North Carolina Dance Theatre artists and indicates their willingness to explore the edges of their art form while they insist on beautiful dancing and intelligent interpretation.

The program continues tonight (3/7) and next weekend (3/12-14): see our calendar for details.

   
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