On Friday evening, the very evocatively named Black Irish Contemporary Hip-Hop Company presented the premiere of Shade, a dance work in collaboration with the Cary Arts Center‘s faculty art presentation, Synesthesia. Both the dance company’s and the artists’ works address the idea of crossing the senses: sight with sound, color with smell, or taste with feelings. The evening began with the announcement of the winners of the visual art show: Ana Sumner won first prize, Val McConnell won second, and Jean Cheely won both honorable mention and People’s Choice.

The popular phrase “throwing shade,” means to show attitude, publicly denounce or show disrespect to someone. Using this concept, Shade not only presented an investigative look at how we identify colors and shades with moods and human experiences, but also “threw shade” at anything it could, from relationships to social situations to the institution of modern dance itself. Black Irish literally used lighting and shading in visual composition and integration into the work in order to challenge our very perception of our lives.

Shade is organized into three loosely defined movements, the first addressing darkness versus light. Solo dancers personify dark feelings, and then a student group comes in as an ensemble of “light bringers.”

On this evening, the student portions were performed by students from Enloe High School and the Cary Ballet Conservatory’s 3D Project. Saturday will feature Cardinal Gibbons High School and the Rainbow Dance Company of Arts Together Studio, and Sunday will feature dancers from the North Carolina Dance Institute.

Friday’s cast executed a high-quality performance, with more people on stage than it appeared could fit! They were so close to each other that it looked more like a writhing mass of limbs – a shared consciousness – than individual dancers. There were very fine solo dancers throughout the work.

The second movement was ushered in by mock interviews done by the harsh, cartoonish voice of a character named Esther, who breaks the fourth wall by speaking with the dancers. The movement is an assortment of dances representing colors: playful yellow, sensual and dangerous blue, passionate red. Interestingly, even though each dance has some of the same choreography, they are all used in different ways to evoke different situations and feelings. The performances were visually stunning – from the physical and emotional mastery of the dancers to Kate Erwin’s gorgeous costuming and Ronald West‘s creative design and choreography.

The third movement combines the simplified representations of the first two sets to show how man is an amalgam of experiences, emotions, colors, and personalities all in one single body. While some of the dancing was overtly sexual and violent, some was comical, and some was complex and confusing. Nevertheless, it was easy to understand on a primal level and displayed successfully how difficult the struggle is to find our own identity.

The concept of the interviews and commentary by Esther seemed to be meant to bring the audience’s interpretations into question, acting like an observer trying to explain aloud what she is thinking. However, the dancing was so powerful on its own that the effect of this character’s forced comedy seemed to cheapen the deep-seated emotions of the movements. The commentary came off awkward and under-rehearsed.

Citizen Shade provided a groovy and unique live accompaniment to the last movement. Improvising to the action on stage, Citizen Shade was equally important with their sound of ambient and atmospheric music. Their music blended into the background most of the time, settling into an indie-funk vibe that finally evolved into a rock guitar solo and soulful vocals by Will Howard.

Black Irish is a distinctive group that simply cannot be compared to anything else. I think synesthesia is a very accurate word to describe not only this show but the company itself: bringing in live music added so much, as well as the guest artists, including beautiful dancer Michelle Pearson from the Metlife Healthy Living Initiative. Do not expect just a dance performance out of this group: as difficult as some of the ideas and concepts can be, the execution is glorious.

Performances of Shade will continue tonight and tomorrow afternoon. See the sidebar for details.