Based in Greensboro since its founding in1991, the North Carolina Dance Festival now boasts five locations, stretching from Wilmington to Asheville. Two seasons after joining the rotation in 2003, the Charlotte edition of the Festival moved into its current home at the Anne R. Belk Theater in Robinson Hall on the UNC Charlotte campus, arguably the best venue in town for the small-scale contemporary choreography featured at the annual event. NCDF has always run two nights in Charlotte since it first opened at the old Afro-American Cultural Center, with programs that offer diverse pieces 8-12 minutes in length, usually divided fairly equally between local and touring artists. Since none of the pieces were repeated on successive nights, as had often been the case in recent years, the 2011 Festival could take pride in a renewed vitality. Attending the second night of the Festival, I was able to see seven of the 13 pieces presented overall, including three that were apparently excerpted from larger works.

The evening began appetizingly with a sassy Divertimento Amore, the shortest piece of the night. Choreographed by Sarah Emery, a mainstay of the now-defunct Moving Poets of Theatre and Dance, this arch and energetic pas de deux was far different from the edgy, steamy fare that was the Moving Poets’ trademark. Emery and her partner, Javier Gonzalez, emerged out of separate spotlights on an otherwise darkened stage – so dark that the subsequent appearance of two outdoor chairs and a café table looming behind them came as a pleasant surprise. The give-and-take between Emery and Gonzalez was hardly less wholesome or cosmopolitan than a Gene Kelly movie before the two intertwined briefly in a brisk tango set to recorded music played by the Ahn Trio. More edgy and obsessed was Heavy, choreographed and performed by Audrey Baran, using the more contemporary sound of Florence and the Machine’s “Heavy in Your Arms.” Baran also materialized under a spotlight, but in a more flattened posture that reminded me of a crouching spider. Her writhing and agonizing became human soon enough as she rose to her feet, the casual attire and her alternately lithe and spasmodic movements chiming well with the role of a deserted woman in a country-style torch song. It all crystallized rather nicely as Baran ripped off the flannel shirt she wore – evidently his – and caressed it.

The next two pieces before intermission were more abstract and ambitious. Terranova Dance Theatre unveiled a piece that was choreographed and costumed by company founder Jen Guy Metcalf, set to music by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Zoë Keating. Metcalf’s costumes were somewhat shinier and more formal than simple practice leotards, but The Form of Things gave us no clue why. Equally elusive was the partnering, Metcalf’s lone male dancer connecting with only one of the four women in the piece. The spurned women weren’t entirely overshadowed – one of the trio drew a solo while the other two had a mini pas de deux, compounding the intriguing asymmetry. On the other hand, the four-part Ode, choreographed and danced by Diego Carrasco Schoch, exhausted its fascination fairly quickly. Set to one of five Salve Reginas written by Giovanni Pergolesi during the baroque era, Schoch’s work was repetitive and monotonously lit, apparently keyed toward meditative aspirations. The music certainly didn’t sport the fast-slow-fast pacing favored by both baroque composers and the choreographers who gravitate toward that era. No, Pergolesi’s four movements were slow-slow-fast-slow with a particularly funereal finale. Costuming, also by Schoch, was perfectly consonant with the meditative, monastic spirit of the choreography, ascetically performed barefoot. Anyone looking for trance in dance could stop right here.

The three pieces presented after intermission were akin to Ode in length and akin to Divertimento in including dramatic elements. Poor Ellen (Part II) took its inspiration from “Poor Ellen Smith,” a murder ballad based on events of 1894 that unfolded in Winston-Salem. Dancer-choreographer E.E. Balcos called on Baran to portray the title role in her second showcase of the night. Balcos, a UNC Charlotte faculty member and artistic director of E.E.Motion, portrayed the dissipated Peter DeGraff, Smith’s killer, with a newfound swagger. Interestingly enough, Balcos obliquely chose music by John Allemeier instead of the obvious folk material. Two women, Melissa Jessie and Katie Matter, were unexpectedly added to the scenario, projections of the pregnant Smith after her affair with DeGraff and a gaunt, vengeful Ellen – likely the victim at a later stage, after the child died at birth, who stalked her estranged boyfriend in hopes of a reconciliation. The piece was riveting, as was the more abstract Flight Distance III: Chain Suite that came next. Co-choreographed by Helen Simoneau and Kristin Taylor, the work, running just a fraction over 12 minutes, probed the “distance that an individual will place between itself and another” to original music by Jonathan Melville Pratt. The opening stop-and-go section of the piece was instantly compelling as Simoneau and Taylor maintained a notably close distance between each other, performing different sets of motion between freezes into tableaus that had all the precision of a complex, integrated machine. An almost identical section closed the piece, but in between, the choreography became slightly more fluid – to a score that remained modernistic and rigidly percussive – with episodes of unison movement mixed with outbreaks of solo, complementary, and independent movement. There was certainly a tension and a chemistry between the two dancers in their gray tattered costumes, but their dance remained mysterious and impersonal.

Roman numerals persisted into the final dance of the Festival, Strega Stories Part II – Revolt, choreographed by Natalie Marrone with her dancers, Kelsey Herbst, Lindsay Leonard, Kristen Mazuk, Kelley Murphy, and Amanda Randall. There was even some Roman flavor to the opening as one of the women pulled a sledge onto the Belk stage carrying another woman, standing upright and looking like a chariot driver in her glittery helmet. But after the rider dismounted and the women parked the sledge, there was no significant follow-up to the spectacle or any elaboration on the relationship between the driver and her human steed. Plenty of atmospheric movement followed, the Moorish witch costumes and the Musicàntica score fitfully suggesting an intricate bacchanal. At its start, Strega held out the promise of initiating us into a profane diablerie with a pulsating Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom excitement, but by the halfway mark, Marrone’s scenario seemed merely Lost. In a piece that clocked at just under 15 minutes, that meant watching five women in black dresses swishing around suggestively for an excruciatingly long time.