The North Carolina Dance Theater, directed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Associate Director Patricia McBride, is North Carolina’s premier dance company, with a long history of innovative creations, first class talent and bustling energy. This year’s company is young (2/3 of the dancers have been with the company four or fewer years) and athletic, with beautiful lines. The minimal sets are perfect for the works, and the lighting impressively creative. Presenting five “innovative works” on this varied program, one a premiere, the company deserved the standing ovation of the rapt audience in the cozy confines of the Booth Playhouse within the Blumenthal Center.

You’re So Fine, a world premiere choreographed by company member Sasha Janes to the folksy music of fellow-Australian, Paul Kelly, opens the evening in a light-hearted vein. Its three self-explanatory scenes, “Boy Meets Girl,”  “It’s Luuuv…” and “Boy Does Something Really Stupid!” feature dancers Anna Gerberich and David Ingram, who make the perfect smitten pair, despite the third scene, in which he implores and she rejects (to the music of “If I Could Start Today Again”), ending with a slap across the face! The audience lustily cheered the choreographer and performers – all the ballerinas were in point shoes, dictated by some of the classical ballet techniques the choreographer has employed.

Special mention must be made of the set – a large garish red heart (like neon!) was up at the start of the ballet, transpierced by an arrow with appropriate sound effects, then adding a second concentric heart as boy and girl hooked up, and cracking jaggedly to the sound of broken glass before the third scene.

The second work on the program was more Gothic, and somewhat disturbing. Using Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture” as the musical component, Constructing Juliet is not the retelling of the age-old tale immortalized by Shakespeare, although the setting and theme are present, but rather the passing on of the family prejudice (“Do you KNOW what they did to us?”) through a symbolic ritual of yodel, hand-flap, and spitting into the spittoon, which Juliet’s mother, danced by Traci Gilchrist, tries to impart onto her resistant daughter, danced by the beautiful Anna Gerberich. This repeated ritual is accompanied by an irritating playing of the first few chords of the Tchaikovsky score on a scratchy 78 rpm record – same scratch…, same scratch…, same scratch…, same scratch…, at least two dozen times – the stuff of brain-washing and as irritating as Juliet’s mother’s attempts at indoctrination!  Despondently, Juliet opens a large envelope containing a huge heart which she puts on the ancient gramophone, providing us with the ensuing complete version of the Fantasy Overture. Romeo, dark-skinned, is danced by the superb Joseph Watson. Tall and elegant, athletic and muscular, Watson has great technique, and dances well with the incomparable Gerberich. The clash between family ritual and free will (free love) builds until, overcome, Juliet drinks from the spittoon, swallowing the family’s bitterness, and dying while Romeo scatters roses over the mourners and his beloved Juliet.

In his remarks which prefaced the evening, director Bonnefoux explained that the humor of the third work of the evening, Uhh!, would mitigate the angst of Constructing Juliet. I personally found Uhh! depressing although interesting by the wide-ranging inventiveness of the choreography, by NCDT staff member Mark Diamond. Imagine an aimless and forlorn couple in their middle age, he dressed in 1950s slacks, blue shirt and tie, black oxfords, and she in a 1950s one-piece dress with short floppy sleeves. They gaze, not seeing, interact unfeelingly, and except for a brief moment of glimmering smile, always look down, slump-shouldered and dejected. Kara Wilks and Sasha Janes are superbly in character – even down to the half-hearted curtain calls and vague beckon to the meandering choreographer. In some of the early futile moments of the “daily grind” and the “rat-race” the dancers exhibited brilliant moves and moments of athleticism. Although the audience tittered and sometimes roared, this work ended the first half, “not with a bang” but a hmmm!

Another ballet choreographed by Mark Diamond began the second half of the evening, but in a completely different vein and mood. The subject is torture, which has been a moral and political issue in the last few years. This ballet, The Chair, leaves the spectator bewildered and upset by the implied violence and mental anguish the prisoner endures. Addul Manzano is the tortured man, sitting in the chair in question, and David Ingram is his antagonist, eventually binding his victim to the chair with duct tape. Ballerinas Seia Rassenti, Sarah Hayes Watson and Kara Wilkes dance the roles of lovers, past or imagined. The sound montage uses an insistent drumbeat (often a Latino rhythm) with strains of Debussy (Sirènes from Nocturnes) and Mahler to pound the brain into compliance. The great lighting effects are by Robert Fabrizio, and special mention goes to Diamond for two noteworthy innovations – the prisoner and a ballroom dance partner rotate vertically, in slow motion, giving new meaning to “tour de force,” and in the fading scene the prisoner rides on the rotating backs of the three lovers.

The evening closed with the longest, layered and most energetic and intricate work on the program, Verge, choreographed by resident choreographer, Dwight Rhoden, in 2002. Dancing to the drum-heavy minimalist original score of Antonio Carlos Scott, the entire ensemble is on-stage and dancing much of the time. Joseph Watson leads Addul Manzano, his disciple, in a series of movements meant to place them in the center of the “target,” which is clearly visible at the beginning of the ballet. In the final ensemble section, “Nirvana,” the dancers, in three lines, dance the new movements after each other, like the entrances of the theme in a fugue, ending in a circle on the floor, the human incarnation of the original target. Again, the lighting deserves praise, this time to Michael Korsch, for the multiple pencil spots that added so much to the energy of the moment and his imaginative decomposing of the original target into a ribcage-like structure and finally its reconstruction as a human target on the floor.

There are three more performances of” Innovative Works,” November 6, 7 & 8 – modern-dance aficionados should attend! See details in our Western calendar.