Currently at the Knight Theater, Charlotte Ballet presents Spring Works, three thought-provoking and superbly-executed pieces in performance until April 27.

Opening night brought a special one-night-only treat: dancer Anson Zwingelberg opened the evening with a solo by Merce Cunningham. Zwingelberg recently presented this solo as part of the Cunningham centennial celebration Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event in New York City, where Zwingelberg graced the stage with dancers from New York City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Modern Dance, and more.

With its juxtaposition of rigid lines and rounded contractions of the upper body, constant shifts of dimensionality and perspective, and seemingly unrelated accompaniment (this time by John King), Cunningham’s work always leaves the audience pondering (if even a little confused).

Cunningham Technique is considered its own modern dance technique, a technique very different from – though influenced by – ballet. According to his bio, this was not Zwingelberg’s first time with Cunningham, and from his mature performance, it is no wonder. Zwingelberg was strong and clean in technique and captivating to watch.

The Cunningham opener was followed by a relatively short pas de deux entitled “Opus. 11” by the British choreographer David Dawson and a longer “IN Cognito” by Helen Pickett before pausing for intermission.

“Opus. 11,” set to the music of Greg Haines, was danced this evening by Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall (and by Sarah Hayes Harkins and Ben Ingel on Friday and at the Saturday matinee). The piece, premiered by the Semperoper Ballett of Dresden in 2013, is described by Dawson as “a love letter” to two of his closest artistic collaborators, the piece’s costume designer Yumiko Takeshima and the assistant to choreographer Raphaël Coumes-Marquet. While the piece bordered on too much angst from repetitive, longing reaches and mournful-looking expressions, it still was very attractive in its use of partnering (executed seamlessly by the two dancers), specifically in a number of interesting and difficult lifts.

Pickett’s “IN Cognito” is comical, technical, and fascinating. The piece was inspired by the books of NC native Tom Robbins (the title comes from one book in particular, Villa Incognito), a friend of Pickett’s, whose books present a motif of being incognito. Pickett explores this state of being in her piece, specifically in the lives of performing artists, who often must transform themselves into entirely new characters. What then, Pickett asks, becomes of the “real” self? Does one hide or does one actually – through the art – express his or her own self even more truthfully? She states the irony of this artistic situation in the program notes, saying, “As performers, we transform ourselves, assume identities, and at the same time… show our very souls.”

“IN Cognito” featured nine dancers, all of whom performed with precision and expressivity. The piece included quirky and goofy group work (at several points, the dancers do “the floss”) as well as intense and impressive solo and duet work. Comedy was enhanced by the set and lighting (by Les Dickert), which sometimes included lampshades that floated from above and covered the dancers’ heads, or a potted plant behind which dancers took turns hiding.

Pickett and the dancers were successful in posing an important question, one especially relevant to the dance world, in which the fear of becoming incognito often comes from a fear of technical study: there is an ongoing position in the dance world, especially among dancers in the contemporary scene, which often refutes intense technical study in fear that too much technique can hinder freedom of expression. While it is a valid concern – dancers do not want merely to fill roles – it was proven by the Charlotte Ballet dancers and Pickett’s choreography that technical precision does not to hinder expressivity but rather it enhances it. The human being that is the dancer does not have to become incognito inside his or her technique but rather can come alive inside and out of it. With such a large technical vocabulary, these dancers were able to express whatever they wanted. This was technique paired with artistry that allowed them to “show their very souls.”

The evening concluded with Johan Inger‘s multi-layered “Walking Mad,” which premiered on the Nederlands Dans Theater in 2001 and has since been performed by a number of companies, including Charlotte Ballet, before this occasion.

“Walking Mad” is set mainly to Ravel’s “Boléro,” with a short ending from “Für Alina” by Arvo Pärt. Inger says “Boléro” was the inspiration for this piece; “Its sexual, almost kitschy history was the trigger point to make my own version.” Perhaps Inger is expressing how hearing one piece over and over can drive you crazy; perhaps it is the repetitive, machine-gun-like snare drum alone that can drive you crazy. Either way, Inger explores different forms of crazy in “Walking Mad,” from the goofy to the disturbing to the heartbreaking.

A cast of nine dance in and out and around a wooden wall that stands center stage, almost as long as the stage itself. The dancers use the wall in almost every way possible: jumping on top of it, propelling off of it for leaps, and sometimes falling back on it to lie flat (guided by the dancers who, at that moment, stand behind it). The wall also has doors, from which single limbs are shown shaking; at one point, a group of cloaked and hatted dancers come chasing one dancer around the stage (at first she is scared, then it becomes a game). The wall acts as safety for some (leaning up against it), as prison for others (kicking and smacking against it), or as peek-a-boo for all (playing with the use of the doors, looking over and around it). Dancers sometimes vibrated with blank stares like zombies, sometimes thrust their pelvises and danced as at a club (with actual party hats on). The movement, set, and costumes (all done by Inger) were emotionally and aesthetically varied, responding to Ravel with humor and creativity.

Most poignant in this piece was its ending. The shift to Pärt’s score introduces two lone dancers, a man and a woman, left on stage in front of the now outstretched wall. There are piles of clothes on the ground (a recurring motif) and the woman cannot keep herself from running over and grabbing them, picking them up, then staring into the distance with a naïve, deranged looked. The man – lover, brother, friend – keeps trying to make her put down the clothes. It is as if he is saying, “Dance with me,” and they dance together a little bit, but she keeps being drawn away by the clothing. What is wrong with her we do not know. Has she lost the people who used to wear these clothes? Does she have some sort of obsession? Is she mad? The title of the piece alludes to the last, though Inger is not obvious in his choreography but instead subtle and gentle. After a few more attempts to draw the woman away from her attachment, the man eventually gives up. He walks to a pile of clothing that must have been his own, puts on the coat and cap, and latches on to the wall. He pulls himself up and stands straight with his back to the audience. For a few seconds, he is still. Then, with a single step, he falls.

An audience member watching “Walking Mad” could have easily been drawn to tears from both laughter and sorrow. The piece is layered emotionally as well as stylistically and, as in each of the other three pieces of Spring Works, was thought-provoking and exceedingly well-danced.

Spring Works continues through Saturday, April 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.