Photo Credit: Taylor Jones

Cluster of dancers onstage

Photo by Charlotte Ballet Image Description:

CHARLOTTE, NC –Midway through his second full season as artistic director, we can now say that Alejandro Cerrudo has stamped Charlotte Ballet as his company. The corps looks fresh, peopled with more newbies we’re getting to know than trusted heirlooms who have long since proven their mettle. The choreography on their current Come To Life program at Knight Theater – Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump, Jiří Kylián‘s Petite Mort, and the world premiere of Penny SaundersBeat the Clock – is beguilingly adventurous. Wow factor? Check.

For those of you who remember the 1950s, yes, Beat the Clock exhumes the classic TV game show hosted by the preternaturally vacuous Bud Collyer and sponsored by Sylvania. So at first, it wasn’t at all apparent that Saunders was targeting gender roles in those ancient days. But while the jackpot money was still flying gloriously above the dancers portraying the announcer, the host, the contestants, and the amped audience, we were cinematically fade-dissolving into a different scene as the shower of bills hit the ground. This was a panel discussion where three women discussed the provocative question of whether housewives could benefit from additional education. Though it’s a godsend for the choreography, the discussion got heated, which may frustrate a few feminists in the audience. What frustrated me, however, was that Saunders’ sound design wasn’t as clearly audible for the panelists as it was for the archival gameshow track.

As the panelists’ hubbub subsided at stage right, there were a few moments of split screen as Michael Korsch‘s lighting intensified at stage left for a briefer husband-and-wife scene, where both of the marrieds ended up feeling ignored and unvalued. Is this why we won the war? Sometimes, it felt this way. This brief microcosm gave way to two concluding community scenes, the first spotlighting the women and the finale embracing the entire 14-person ensemble. Kerri Martinsen‘s costume design had something to say about conformity in the outfits sported by the gameshow contestants and audience, later giving way to assorted nondescript outfits. Similarly, Maurice Mouzon Jr. as the announcer and James Kopecky as the host wore uniform outfits – with glittery silver blazers, to hell with historical accuracy. Back then, the em in emcee stood emphatically for master of ceremonies, so I suspected that Saunders and Martinsen were double-underlining their point.

After the first intermission, the repertoire flipped from cinematic to theatrical, with costume designer Joke Visser adorning Kylián’s men with gilt-edged cavalier attire that fit tightly and, for his women, the stiffest possible dresses. Suffice it to say that you’ve probably never seen women move laterally across the stage as these ladies in black do. Nor can it be doubted that these ladies – or their dresses – are the little deaths implied by Kylián’s Petite Mort title. Scored with slow movements from Mozart’s 21st and 23rd Piano Concertos, Mort both celebrates and lovingly skewers classic elegance – with a beautiful set of pas de deuxs between the ensemble segments, and a couple of breathtaking transitions that require some nifty undercover choreography of their own. The most eye-catching pairings among the six couples, for me, were Kopecky and Samantha Riester along with Raven Barkley and Rees Launer. Your mileage may vary, especially if you’re witnessing Charlotte Ballet for the first time, and the six couples will change from performance to performance (only Reister and Kopecky are constants, and they will be swapping out dances and partners). Just try not to gag on the relentless grace and symmetry.

If Kylián’s piece was a wry and perfect gem, then Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump, premiered by Hubbard Street Dance back in 2012, impacted like a coolly calculated over-the-top extravaganza. Korsch italicized the spectacle with his lighting design, principally when he aimed his beams at the audience and when he illuminated rows of vanity bulbs on cue. Branimira Ivanova‘s costumes arguably upstaged Korsch’s lighting and Cerrudo’s choreography, literally stopping the show and putting two of Charlotte Ballet’s dancers in suspended animation, pinned to the scenery. Well before that, it was apparent that Cerrudo’s scenic design – massive movable boxes about as high as a school locker – was an integral part of his choreography. The movements of these huge boxes made transitions between scenes a constant source of excitement and surprise.

Ten pieces on Cerrudo’s playlist, listed alphabetically rather than sequentially in the program booklet, add to the kaleidoscopic swirl of his scenario and the giddy, stagey energy of the dancers. So his magical moment of suspended animation stands all the more dramatically apart from the hectic electricity that bookends this utterly unique pas de deux. Cerrudo’s piece, longer than the others, fit in well with them, maybe even eclipsing them a little. More comfortable in his leading role, his welcoming remarks were confident, for his invitation to support Charlotte Ballet’s 2024-25 season would soon be buttressed with a stunning program. The buzz in the house seemed to indicate that Cerrudo is winning over fervent new fans in his audience and onstage. As one ticketholder summarized, leaving the elevator that descends into the nearby parking garage: “Holy cow.”