In its purest form, dance is ideally eco-friendly and green. Toss in the environmental impact of costumes, lighting, electronically or acoustically produced music, plus the natural resources that go into musical instruments, and the ecological impact of even the most lavish ballet falls far short of ozone depleting BP proportions. But if dance can hardly grow greener, dance companies and choreographers can be more forceful in addressing environmental crises and concerns. That was theory behind the choreographies presented by North Carolina Dance Theatre at this year's Innovative Works. In their first full season at Knight Theatre, NCDT added a new twist to their annual potpourri of new and recent pieces, tying them all into a neat package with a unifying theme.
Four different choreographers tackled this green theme in seven different pieces, yielding episodes of enlightenment, contemplation, puzzlement, and laughter – all done with the fine grace of a company that revels in new work. But there is a reason why dance and ballet have so often retreated into the fantasy realms of animated toys, chivalric swains, and enchanted princesses: they are more readily addressed by the theatrical and physical idioms of choreography than the problems and complexities of the real world. So while the efforts of Mark Diamond, Sasha Janes, David Ingram, and Dwight Rhoden were all commendable, success was occasionally elusive.
Diamond attacked the theme boldly in the first of his three pieces, "Higher Consciousness," combining spoken word, music, and dance in his examination of environmental issues. There was even some recycling woven into the fabric of the piece as five NCDT troupers not only danced but took turns at the mic reciting the texts – and two dancers, Justin VanWeest on bongos and newcomer David Morse at the piano, provided the live music. Yet as we heard about the long, long time it takes for plastic to decompose or the river of waste floating across a wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, it was hard to see the connection between these dismaying observations and the movements that Diamond had choreographed. Instead of somehow connecting the two, Morse's keyboard improvs only compounded the lack of coherence. Nor was Diamond's second piece, "Time Is of the Essence (Save the World)," any more articulate as Alessandra Ball and Dustin Layton portrayed "an environmental activist couple juggling life, jobs, and their mission to save the world" over Chopin's Scherzo No. 1. Costumes by Christina Giannini certainly suggested a couple of high-powered professionals, but aside from some motions by Ball that vaguely hinted she was planting something, there was hardly anything in this starchy pas de deux to suggest their lives, their jobs, their activism, or their juggling. We could guess that things didn't work out for these junior execs, but not with any certainty.
In his eighth season with the company, Sasha Janes can now be described as one of NCDT's pre-eminent dancers and choreographers. Imagery for both of his Innovative Works pieces is stark and simple, with radically contrasting moods. "Kinetic Energy" is an aerobic frolic, with Morse again providing the piano improvisation and Janes himself in the background, first walking then jogging on a treadmill as the tempo increased. Three couples interacted and burned calories in the foreground, including Ball and Layton, Anna Gerberich and Addul Manzano, and newcomer Pete Walker with willowy Kara Wilkes. It allended risibly enough with everyone – including Janes – falling to the ground at the end in extravagant exhaustion. Showing a fraction more fortitude, Morse didn't collapse on the piano until the ensemble took their bows. Janes's "Tree Hugger" was a surprisingly serious – and satisfying – contemplation of the common epithet, starting with Gerberich promenading down the Knight Theatre aisle in a delightfully pastoral costume by Giannini. Reaching the stage, she leapt headlong into the arms of Ingram and Layton, jointly portraying her amorous, grieving tree over the music of Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess.
Dedicated to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, Ingram's "Arson" was so rich in suggestive imagery that I can't help hoping that this fine dancer becomes more prolific in creating choreographies of his own. A pause was necessary in the program to prepare Ingram's opening tableau, which included rows of male and female dancers buried in the ashes of a desolate scene. The ashes looked more like pristine snow than might be ideal, but thanks to the pleated costume designs by Lindsey Bruck, the visual effect was stunning as the women rose from – and with – their ashes and executed their first spins. Connection with green themes was tenuous at best, but the interplay of black and white was mesmerizing.
Dwight Rhoden's "Spill" cued up promisingly enough with an ensemble of four couples, sporting disturbingly bespattered Giannini costumes, joined by Max Levy, whose role might have been that of a sympathetic human or another creature that had lost its mate. Neither Rhoden's choreography nor the music by Joan Jeanrenaud cleared up the situation, and the ecological outcome was equally ambiguous. Either normality returned to the beleaguered Gulf waters or death reigned.
No ambiguities blemished the pure fun of Diamond's "Runway (Recycle)," which seems to have served as the inspiration for NCDT's entire green enterprise. With Morse back at the keyboard, after actually dancing in "Arson," and Diamond's daughter Erika crafting all the costumes from stuff we ordinarily dump into a landfill, the scenario of this grand finale was no more complicated than a fashion show. While a jazz couple (Janes and Traci Gilchrest in coordinated veggie bag attire) bopped to Morse's jazz medley and a techno beat mix, 11 other dancers sashayed or boogied toward us as our fashion models. Materials used to clothe the runway guys and gals included Styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, 2-liter plastic soda bottles, reel-to-reel audio tape, bottle caps, aluminum pop tabs, plastic grocery and garbage bags, woven newspapers, and umbrellas. Morse's outfit was altogether conventional, except for the glittering cape of CD's draped around his neck. Nobody less outré than Lady Gaga could be expected to actually wear this finery, but this was a fashion parade that anyone could love.