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As smooth as grits and gravy: North Carolina Dance Theatre.

Southern-Fried Ballet
By Mae G. Banner

North Carolina Dance Theatre

The Egg, March 24

Ballet and bluegrass? You bet. North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Shindig slid down as easy as grits and gravy, the crowning work in a disarming program Friday night at the Egg.

The dances varied in mood from funky to romantic to kick-up-your-heels joyful, sometimes making ballet slippers look like bare feet. Whatever the mood, the dances held to an over-all theme, Under Southern Skies, established by NCDT’s artistic director, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.

French-born Bonnefoux and his wife Patricia McBride, both long-time principals with the New York City Ballet, have led the Charlotte-based company since 1996. As you might expect, it has a good-sized Balanchine repertory, as well as modern-leaning dances by contemporary choreographers. But, Bonnefoux believes the troupe’s repertory should reflect its territory and speak directly to local audiences.

Shindig was juiced by the foot-tapping live music of Greasy Beans, a sparky bluegrass band from Asheville who Bonnefoux called on to provide traditional tunes for his balletic hoedown. The players may have been surprised at how well the combination worked; their down-home rhythms suited the dancers just fine.

The five-part suite is a distant cousin to Balanchine’s Square Dance, which was set to the baroque music of Corelli and Vivaldi. For Shindig (2004) the Greasy Beans—banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and big upright bass—stood at stage right in Appalachian solemnity, feeding and getting energy from the dancers.

Six couples, the men in T-shirts and jeans, the women in lovely pale purple, blue and pink swingy skirts, blended vernacular kicks and stomps with the purest classical ballet vocabulary. The men circled the stage in grand manege, traveling and turning, or kicked up an exuberant hornpipe, punctuated with high split-jumps.

In one bright passage, three men somersaulted, vying for the attention of one woman. In the end, she partnered all three. Next, an allegro dancer, a real pony girl, held the center of the stage framed by two men who couldn’t possibly catch her. An all-male passage had sweeping ronds de jambes translated into cowboy-style moves, then followed with jumps, spins, and gleeful arm swinging that looked like they were twirling invisible lassos.

A quick duet had the woman turning on her heel and falling into a split, then joining her partner in a delightful promenade, which led to the big finale: all six couples going round and round, in to the center and back again, while the audience whooped and clapped the four-square beat.

That populist intent suffused the entire evening, beginning with City South by resident choreographer Mark Diamond. Set to limber music recorded by Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten, and lit atmospherically in Nate McGaha’s rosy and sometimes wine-colored tones, the three-part piece explored club dancing and funky characters in baseball caps or porkpie hats. Isolations and twists looked like the popping and locking of hiphop. Couples connected via their stances, but didn’t touch.

In the central duet to Fleck’s bluesy banjo, the woman was a dead weight on the man, hanging on his ankle. He pried her loose and hoisted her in an upside down lift, with her feet sticking out at all angles.

Country moves alternated with sophisticated poses in smooth segues that culminated in a jagged tower of bodies, a human sculpture at center stage.

Folk singer-guitarist Christine Kane, who sounds a little like Nanci Griffith, but with her own strong-minded lyrics, provided a stunning basis for Bonnefoux’s I’m with You, three vignettes about hard love. The dancers, Nicholle Rochelle and Daniel Wiley, expressed the heart and soul of Kane’s songs, never copycatting the music, but living Kane’s account of wooing with passion and equality. It was a jewel of a dance.

Guest choreographer Uri Sands, an alumnus of the Alvin Ailey company, choreographed the dream-like Sweet Tea to the limpid sax of John Coltrane. Three dancers, Rebecca Carmazzi, Mia Cunningham and Justin Van Weest, created a humid summer afternoon as they swirled and strutted in an earthy, Ailey-inflected atmosphere with three wooden rockers placed way upstage.

The women wore chocolate-brown sundresses and amazingly huge translucent straw platter-shaped hats, and carried palm-leaf fans, like the hats and fans in the church scene of Ailey’s Revelations.

Also, as in Revelations, Van Weest carried a black and white pinwheel of an umbrella that he opened and twirled to hide the dancers. Closed, the umbrella became a walking stick, a lever to lift one of the women and a horizontal broomstick for the other woman to jump.

Coltrane’s music was slow and easy, a ground for this humanist, sensualist dance. The women bent their knees in wide plies as if to let the air in between their legs. They fanned their bottoms, and then their feet, seeming to sag to earth from the heat. The dance ended with the sound of rain, as the dancers raised their heads and opened their mouths to catch the welcome water.


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