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When the North Carolina Dance Theatre celebrated their 40th anniversary with "Director's Choice," mixing a sizzling world premiere by Dwight Rhoden with vintage pieces by George Balanchine and Salvatore Aiello, they gave themselves a tough act to follow. Yet seven weeks later at Knight Theater, "Spotlight: An Evening of Women Choreographers" was very much equal to the challenge. Featuring works by Twyla Tharp, Jacqulyn Buglisi, and former NCDT troupe member Emery LeCrone, the season finale reaffirmed the company's mastery of modern dance interpretation while presenting a richly satisfying range of images and moods.
Commissioned by NCDT, LeCrone's "Outflow Boundary" had a very contemporary feel in its world premiere at the top of the program. The all-male piece is set to music by Michael Gordon, a post-minimalist score that sounded like an over-caffeinated Philip Glass. While the relentless music and the regimented movement of the men might at first be construed as a critique of masculinity, it soon became apparent that LeCrone also empathized with their sufferings, constraints, and confusion. They took the darkened stage in two rows of four, hooded in DayGlo orange ponchos, already at odds with the elements. What united the men in the initial tableau were their common struggles. Yet in the ensuing segment, Max Levy and Pete Walker were in violent combat, while the others, sporting flashguns, illuminated the scene as they filed by, refusing to get involved.
As the ponchos came off, the outfits became more like military fatigues with grubby tank tops, so as "Outflow Boundary" proceeded with those flashlights piercing the darkness, I found myself catching hints of the Chilean miners and their epic ordeals. The music pounded on mercilessly as all the men but one deployed to the wings. Lifting a bright blue tarp that spanned the stage, the men skillfully let air under it and simulated the sea. Levy drowned in it, but not without a valiant resistance, buffeted from one end of the waves to the other before the sea finally covered his flailing arms at center stage.
As the title indicates, Buglisi's "Requiem 9.11" was no more cheerful than the opening piece. Inspired by a 17th century Italian woman painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, and set to Gabriel Fauré's soothing Requiem, the piece certainly boasts a strange array of reference points, picking up the attack on the World Trade Center in the last stage of its evolution before premiering at the Joyce Theatre in New York City in 2001. As the lights come up, it is uncertain whether the dancers are onstage. Dressed in long flowing skirts that extend beyond their feet, the five women are actually drooped over boxes. They remain hidden from us until they straighten up into sitting positions and we see their bare backs and heads. Costumes by Buglisi and A. Christina Giannini are a provocative hybrid, unmistakably courtly and European in their plushness from the waist down – a stark contrast with the close-fitting, flesh-colored midriffs, which suggest a Middle Eastern belly-dancer sensuality after we've seen the ladies' bare backs.
Evoking burial mounds when the dancers are hunched over them, the boxes serve multiple purposes during the dance. When their skirts are up, the dancers appear to be on pedestals as memorialized statues, but when the skirts are extended to their full lengths, covering the boxes beneath them, the height-extension effect made the women look like goddesses – or eerie ghosts. There is more to be told about the versatility of the skirts, for the dancers were able to sling them around their necks and shoulders like sarongs, or they could spread them out like capes, taking on a saturnine vampiric aspect. Lighting by Clifton Taylor was reportedly designed after visits by the choreographer to the Ground Zero site, so the effect was especially poignant when all five women were looking upward at the highly directional beams of light that angled down at them from the stage-right wing. It was at that moment that I contemplated the status of women in the societies that spawned the Al Qaeda terrorists – and the sufferings endured by women all around the world over the centuries, subjected to masculine idiocy, madness, and brutality. Of the five dancers, Traci Gilchest and Kara Wilkes were placed most prominently in the forward positions of the tableau at the edges. Furthest upstage, it was good to see Rebecca Carmazzi back in action again after birthing twins.
The pairing of the LeCrone and Buglisi pieces before intermission underscored how complementary they were as gender studies. Presentation of Tharp's The Golden Section could be taken as an acknowledgement to all who returned after the break that we had earned a brighter, merrier, celebratory piece. We quickly discovered that "Section" was a blatant understatement as a title for this rollicking suite, set to four rockabilly tracks by David Byrne and premiered last year in Miami. In front of a glittery gold curtain, the 13 dancers were clad in all-gold jogging outfits designed by Santo Loquasto. Even the dancers' shoes and ankle warmers were gold!
Both the sunny energy and the flow of the dance reminded me of Paul Taylor, but the Taylor pieces I've seen were child's play compared to this Tharp gem in terms of difficulty and sheer risk. Dancers were tossed in the air and breathtakingly caught by other dancers. Or with their limbs splayed out, airborne dancers were spun like pinwheels. Two dancers stacked one behind the other were once spun this way – I'll need to see a replay to figure out how this was done. But even as I was gasping at the high-risk moves, I had to question whether Tharp had incorporated too much danger in this piece. It was a look of anxiety that I saw on the face of one of the dancers I've previously mentioned here, as she watched one of the other dancers in flight. I had photographed a look like that five years ago down in Charleston at Spoleto Festival USA as one of the Flying Wallendas gazed upward at his fellow troupers when they performed one of their amazing high-wire acts.
Yes, the visceral thrill of The Golden Section was unprecedented among the works I've seen NCDT perform since the company moved to Charlotte in 1990, and that worrisome look of anxiety will likely disappear the next time NCDT reprises the crowd-pleasing piece. But it might be advisable to consider whether that visceral thrill and that look of anxiety were produced by blurring the line between big top performers and ballet dancers.