When we imagine art, we often see hues of colors splattered on the tips of brushes and bristles, seeming to stretch beyond the borders of the canvas in the mind’s eye. Carolina Ballet dared to ask (and answer) the question, What if this image was pasted onto a physical stage and brought to life with physically moving bodies?

Carolina Ballet’s third annual Choreographers Spotlight Series was presented in collaboration with the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), an intentional collaboration that was a brilliant choice made in part by Moses T. Alexander Greene. Greene recently accepted the role of Director of Film and Performing Arts and welcomed audience members on stage with Zalman Rafael, Artistic Director/CEO of Carolina Ballet.

This was my first time attending a live event at the Joseph M. Bryan Theater in Museum Park. From the moment I stepped out of my car, I was immersed in the personalized and warming environment that NCMA created for me and my fellow audience members. The experience began on the winding path down to the outdoor theater in which the museum’s permanent sculptures are on display. Soft jazz music was seeping through the sprawling North Carolina trees, and the setting sun cast a humid glow on couples hand-in-hand and young children squealing for joy.

As the theater came into view, a handful of Carolina Ballet’s dancers bobbed on the stage, warming up and rehearsing movements from their pieces soon to be performed. Audience members began warming up too, with the sun daring to set behind the stage and beyond the sprawling green park.

The presentation was informal and engaging for the audience. Each of the four pieces began with a short Q&A with the choreographer, who shared their experiences working with the dancers and living in Raleigh for just a short period of two weeks. “Innovation, diversity, and community” were stated as the goals of the Spotlight Series program, and I yearned to see in what ways the dancers and choreographers alike would achieve these values through movement.

Mercurial Mingus, Nikki Hefko

“Open your ears and have fun,” Hefko encouraged the audience as hues of blue and deep indigo mysteriously gathered on stage to begin the evening. Hefko paid her respects to the composer Charles Mingus, who heavily inspired the choreography rooted in the sounds of classical music and jazz.

Rather than the music simply floating above the dancers, the choreography seemed to intertwine masterfully with the strings of Mingus’ ”The Children’s Hour of Dream.” Each of the four dancers gave unique, sultry strength, occasionally eyeing the audience with flattering facial expressions that were sonically mirrored in the music. Mingus’ use of trumpets offered up space for the dancers to suddenly jump through the air, landing with balance and strength over and over again. I was lost in the piece until the very end, when a handful of audience members gave a standing ovation.

A standout was Rachel Robinson, who presented a performance of pure strength and grace from start to end.

Dancers Gathering, David Fernandez

In stark contrast to the first piece, Fernandez’s dancers playfully entered the stage draped in hues of pink and orange. Three couples theatrically glided and spun to Franz Joseph Haydn‘s String Trio in G, Op. 8 No. 2. As the North Carolina sun dared to disappear, the dancers brought us to a fictitious village setting in which young couples celebrated youthful and carefree affection. The joyous piece highlighted each dancer in solo, duet, and trio moments. Technique was largely at play here, and each dancer displayed the applaud-worthy technique that the whole of Carolina Ballet is praised for season after season.

Standouts included Ella Volpe and Anthony Hoyos, who offered outstanding technical performances of their own but also shined together as a pair.

Noctuelle, Tiffany Mangulabnan

As the sun fully set and the nocturnal creatures of the night came out to play, six dancers dressed as moths (or perhaps one big moth) entered the stage quietly and ominously. Real crickets sounded in the woods nearby, providing an all-too-realistic soundtrack while living moths circled around the stage lights just above the dancers, who seemed to mimic their every move draped in hues of yellow and brown.

Mangulabnan stated that the piece was loosely inspired by “The Death of the Moth” essay written by Virginia Woolf. She gave thanks to prior collaborators in her life, including Carolina Ballet performer Jayson Pescasio. She also highlighted her connection with those who have passed on and stated that sometimes the best collaboration can come from those who are no longer with us. The essay’s similarities of themes in the struggle from life to death were depicted throughout the 10-minute dance until the last movement when all the performers collapsed to the ground, but one. The entirety of the piece was utterly captivating and elicited feelings of sadness, hope, preservation, and peace. I am eager to continue following Mangulabnan’s work and hope that Carolina Ballet brings her back to Raleigh’s stages very soon.

Standout Laurel Dorn was is a quiet force onstage, a force that Carolina Ballet has certainly been needing.

Fuaré Soirée, Ted Seymour

The evening came to a close all too soon, with a witty and brilliant presentation by Ted Seymour. Seymour’s bubbly and infectious personality certainly came out in his choreography, and the dancers successfully kept us on edge, yearning for more. The sharing of weight between the six dancers was exhilarating, with innovative partnering that has yet to be experimented within the company. I can only imagine how much more fierce and demanding the piece would have been if performed by an all-female cast, and I would love to see Carolina Ballet experiment with same-sex partnering.

Standouts included Kiefer Curtis and Mia Domini, who dominated with their stage presence and pure love for the movement they were embodying.

With only two weeks to master the choreography, the dancers reached heights (figuratively and literally) that took Carolina Ballet to the next level of artistry. The dancers and choreographers were able to meet each of their values of innovation, diversity, and community. The pieces were contemporary, created by diverse individuals from around the globe, and the local Triangle community was brought together for a night of live art. We can only hope that NCMA will put funds into a permanent live art exhibit that features the art of dance.

Intentional or not, the changing hues of costumes accompanied the setting of the sun just behind the stage. Had this same unreplicable show been set indoors at Carolina Ballet’s usual home in the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts, the experience would have been utterly different. It’s always a joy to see visual art spaces, like that of NCMA, embrace the physical art of dance, breaking the border of what art can, and should, be.