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Celebrating Without Scenery 

NCDT copes in transitional times

Every season, it seems like at least a couple of Charlotte performing arts organizations are celebrating some milestone anniversary. Well, this year, North Carolina Dance Theatre is celebrating a couple of anniversaries all by itself. Artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and his wife, associate artistic director Patricia McBride, are marking 10 years with the company while NCDT is celebrating its 35th anniversary season.

If that weren't sufficient celebration, Charlotte's ace performing arts group launched their 2005-06 season with a program called Celebrate the Classics: Swan Lake to Sleeping Beauty. All this was preceded by a somewhat nebulous tribute to Robert Lindgren, the former Dean of Dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts who founded the company in Winston-Salem back in... let me see... 1970.

From a podium on the Belk Theater stage, Lindgren delivered a disquisition on the early history of NC Dance, including recognition for a whole group of company members in attendance on opening night -- whom he introduced one by one. It was a ceremony that made me fear for my breakfast plans, but the dancing for this 7:30pm performance actually began at 8:03.

Now a truly lavish celebration of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty might see us feasting on a full act from both these Tchaikovsky ballets, served up with a dazzling array of costumes and scenery, and live music from the Charlotte Symphony. Maybe toss in some of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet on the side.

Evidently, when your season is studded with anniversaries -- and you bring in company alums to join the festivities -- your celebration funds are stretched thin. So we saw a succession of three pas de deux from these three ballets, the Tchaikovskys choreographed by Marius Petipa and the Prokofiev by Septime Webre. No live music. No sets. The only trimmings were those worn by the partners.

So instead of a banquet of classics, we were served a platter of fine hors d'oeuvres. These were framed by richer offerings created by Bonnefoux and his eminent mentor, George Balanchine, populating the stage with more than 20 dancers as the evening climaxed. Still, the musicians and set designers had the night off.

Humble as it was, the product onstage was solid and nicely polished. But there were numerous reasons why Bonnefoux's opener, Danses Brillantes, offered little cheer. First, the choreography was as drab and uninspired as the Edouard Lalo score, giving the dancers little opportunity to dazzle. Second, who were these guys?

Most of the Brillantes ensemble were appearing with NCDT for the first time. So the average seniority of this corps could be measured in months rather than years. Let's face it, this celebration was occurring in the midst of a highly transitional year. Were the likes of Servy Gallardo, Jason Jacobs and the incomparable Uri Sands to depart from an NCAA powerhouse, a football coach would likely declare the upcoming season a rebuilding year.

But of course, NCDT has other options besides promoting standouts from their NCDT2 company and their apprentice program. They can scour the globe for maturing phenoms -- or job-hoppers and malcontents at other troupes. We had our first opportunity to see the spotlight on one of the new imports in Brillantes when André Teixeira partnered with Alessandra Ball. Creditable outing for Mr. T, but inconclusive.

The "Wedding Pas de Deux" from Sleeping Beauty, partnering newcomer Jhe W. Russell with Kati Hanlon Mayo, was more revealing. Mayo personified fluid musicality, her lithe movements emphatically and poetically on the beat. More than a little intimidating, it seemed, for Russell. He handled Mayo with the trepidation of an emerging violinist cradling a Stradivarius for the first time. The elements were there -- grace, balance and a dopey winning smile -- but Russell looked tentative, cueing off Mayo when the music and the dance should have been paramount.

For Rebecca Carmazzi and Sasha Janes, returning for their fourth and third seasons respectively, the "Balcony Pas de Deux" from Romeo & Juliet was something of a coming out. All the candor, modesty and exuberance of a blossoming Juliet were present in Carmazzi's charming turn while Janes was the soul of tenderness, rock-solid protectiveness and melting desire.

Spiced with feminine duplicity -- and fortified with multiple solos for each partner -- the NCDT premiere of the "Black Swan Pas de Deux" brought the evening to its zenith. Tracy Gilchrest had just the right icy brilliance as the devastating enchantress, and Daniel Wiley nearly matched her perfect precision, reacting beautifully to the music and his partner's caprices.

Tall auburn-haired Nicholle Rochelle made an entrance worthy of a marquee dancer, portraying the dreamer in Balanchine's Serenade. Mayo and newcomer Vladimir Lut were the dream -- amid a couple of dozen balletic sprites setting the nocturnal mood in baby-blue leotards and gauzy skirts. Lut made the most impressive debut, fluid with all his lifts and radiating certitude. Proof that the imperious Mayo doesn't intimidate everyone.

Wicked irony triumphed again as Little Shop of Horrors invaded Ovens Auditorium to launch the PAC's Broadway Lights Series. Adorably trashy Audrey, after longing ardently for "Somewhere that's green," winds up in the hungry maw of a bloodthirsty plant -- that her most fervent admirer has named after her.

She has lots of company in Audrey II's digestive tract as nobody stops the mutant monster's march to world dominion in this rockin' sci-fi lampoon. Even Seymour, the nerdy florist who worships Audrey, must join her as fertilizer. Long before this poignant denouement, we must dispatch the sadistic dentist Orin, Audrey's abusive boyfriend. Sort of sadistic how we root for his destruction. Then we must dispose of Mushnik, owner of the flower shop where Audrey II transforms Seymour into a celebrity.

Scene changes in this touring production didn't have the snap of a true Broadway show -- but all the costumes, scenery, lighting and sound had that authentic pedigree. We were unusually lucky with the cast, three of whom appeared in the Broadway version. Better yet, you needed your program to tell who did and who didn't.

Particularly impressive was Tari Kelly's slatternly Audrey, once I accepted just how trashy director Jerry Zaks wanted her to be. Jonathan Rayson oozed adoration and neurosis, wearing Seymour's nerdiness like a badge of honor. But Lenny Wolpe also won my heart with the way he straddled Mushnik's warm ethnicity and his cold venality. Darren Ritchie wasn't quite as good as he thought he was as Orin and a slew of other zanies, but Michael James Leslie's rich bass made me understand Audrey II's needs perfectly.

Soul food, baby.

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