An embargoed press release sent out on April 23 tipped me off that the curtain wouldn’t rise the following evening on either Dwight Rhoden‘s Othello or Jiří Kylián‘s Forgotten Land at the start of North Carolina Dance Theatre‘s final program of the 2013-14 season. Instead, executive director Douglas Singleton and artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux stood together onstage at the Knight Theatre and announced that, from now on, NCDT would be known as Charlotte Ballet. The object, from Singleton’s perspective, was to “better connect the company to the community we serve.” For Bonnefoux, the rebranding did not represent a change in direction but a sharper definition of the company’s mission: “No matter how far we push the perceptions of ballet and infuse other dance styles, our performances have always been and will continue to be, rooted in the tradition of ballet.” Additionally, the NCDT school where 700 students are trained annually will now be called the Charlotte Ballet Academy.

When the curtain did rise on the dancers, they delivered a feast that Charlotte could be proud of. Bonnefoux first encountered Kylián when he taught at The Hague, where Kylián was artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater, but he’d never staged any of the native Czech’s choreographies before. Looking at John F. Macfarlane’s brooding scenery, like an ocean wave pouring in from an abstract sky, nobody would be surprised to learn that Forgotten Sky had been inspired by a painting. But to find that the piece, set to Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, was inspired by an Edvard Munch painting came as something of a shock. Macfarlane’s costume designs, almost ecclesiastical in their severity, had nothing of Munch’s worldliness, and Kylián’s choreography also seemed to belong to different worlds, calling for deliberate, meditative arm movements, sumo foot stamping, and dancers bending backwards all the way to the floor.

After an initial ensemble, the piece settled into segments centering on couples in matching or complementary-colored costumes. Each of the couples had a slightly different movement vocabulary, beginning with the most dominant of them all, Pete Leo Walker and Melissa Anduiza in black. Addul Manzano and Sarah Hayes Watson were also scintillating in their gray outfits, but they seemed to have offered little more than an interlude when Walker and Anduiza returned. Chelsea Dumas in lime and Josh Hall in taupe were totally eclipsed by the vivacity of Anna Gerberich and Jordan Leeper in red during the tumultuous Dies irae section of the Requiem. Likewise, Elizabeth Truell and Gregory DeArmond, in mauve and brown, were overshadowed by Jamie Dee Clifton in white and David Morse in tan, pairing up in the most tender of Kylián’s pas de deux, set to the concluding Requiem aeternam movement of the score. While Britten wrote his Sinfonia in 1939 as a memorial to his parents and suffused it with his anti-war feelings after immigrating to the US, Kylián felt that the music represented the encroachment of the sea on the land of East Anglia, Britten’s birthplace. In the anguished work of the most salient couples, I could see both of these themes fully absorbed – with a taste of wartime desolation in Kylián’s coda – for, after a final ensemble, one dancer after another peeled away until only three of the six women remained, fixed in position, facing away from us to the upstage wave, raising and lowering their arms listlessly as the music faded out and the curtain fell.

My second experience with Rhoden’s Othello, sporting an altogether revamped cast, was very different from my experience at the 2009 world premiere.* The sheer visual stylishness of the piece overwhelmed all else the first time around, including my reservations about the storytelling. Elements of a disco club and American Idol are echoed in Michael Korsch’s ramps-and-risers scenic design, constantly reconfigured by the dancers themselves as they take on stagehand chores. Costumes by Christine Darch eye-poppingly conjure up memories of the Dick Tracy movie, and her get-up for Iago still reminds me of Heath Ledger as The Joker. Rhoden’s carefully observed choreography deftly blends dance moves, acting moves, and rock-star shtick. But as striking, busy, and vibrant as the spectacle remains the second time around, it was less wondrous for me in its sensual onslaught.

I found a greater part of my attention freed to follow Rhoden’s modernized storyline, which transports all the key characters into the recording biz, with Othello, an award-winning producer, impetuously proposing to pop icon Desdemona during a telecast of her latest hit and marrying her on live TV. Aside from Des, however, the characters are hard to read without reading Rhoden’s four-page plot synopsis and character breakdown in the printed program. Even then, it’s difficult to keep track of where we are in the action and sometimes difficult to grasp who’s who. A little extra time with the synopsis beforehand is helpful, particularly if your expectations have been shaped by the Shakespearean tragedy. Everyone here is a cog in the pop music machine, including the Duke, transformed into the CEO of Othello’s entertainment corporation, and Desdemona’s father, now managing her career.

Sometimes tracking the plot was more difficult because so many people were onstage simultaneously doing interesting stuff that stole my focus from the main action. While it was easier to scrutinize the plot – and Rhoden’s failures to visualize events or the details of his character sketches – it was also possible to discover how completely I’d ignored and underestimated David Rozenblatt‘s original score back in 2009. It’s pre-recorded and played on the Knight Theater’s 24-speaker system with Arun Luthra often joining in live on soprano or tenor saxophone. While synthesizers are extensively deployed, there are also memorable passages for solo violin, piano, flute, and bass guitar. So the score is anything but a sappy pop confection, and the voice of Iago often floats over it, mouthing his treacherous malignities in a trance-like monotone.

Naseeb Culpepper plays the villain with a chilling blend of insanity and staggering, drugged calculation, always at the heart of the decadent revels, yet ever the manipulator as Iago masterminds his revenge. Walker was very imposing and charismatic as the latter-day Moor, certainly capable of sweeping Desdemona off her feet, yet his disintegration was no less compelling. Making the heroine a pop star rather than merely a paragon of virtue, Rhoden has widened Desdemona’s range, yet Gerberich straddled it effortlessly, sparkling enough to merit adulation but still vulnerable in her adoration of her husband. Rhoden has too much phantasmagoria going on to fully flesh out Iago’s more cavalier victim, Cassio, but Leeper made him plausible enough. As Rodrigo, Manzano got a chance to play a more dopey victim, and he excelled in the foppish comedy. Iago’s abused wife Emilia is also better served, and Clifton actually gave her more defiant spirit than we often see. As Iago’s femme fatale confederate, Bianca is still whorish though no longer pursuing that profession, and Anduiza – who had the title role in Carmen last fall – was more than capable of dishing out fresh portions of vamping here.

*A review of that premiere, by another CVNC critic, is here.

(Bios of the dancers are at NCDT’s/Charlotte Ballet’s website.)

This program was repeated April 25 and will be given again April 26. For details, see the sidebar.