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Feeling Good on Black Friday 

It was Black Friday -- the day Charlotte lost the Hornets. And vice versa. Downtown, where somebody was supposed to build an arena to help a pair of needy millionaires, gloom and doom weren't consuming patrons at the Performing Arts Center. Contentment reigned as the North Carolina Dance Theatre premiered their new version of Carmina Burana.

With massive assistance from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, four guest vocalists, and three choirs, the company triumphantly demonstrated why it is worth every penny. NCDT has danced to this music before in a 1995 version by the late Salvatore Aiello, Bonnefoux's predecessor. And Symphony has immersed itself in the music as recently as last spring -- with heavy choral artillery.

But what happened at Belk Theater was more than the sum of its parts. The choral battalions had been deployed to the rear of the stage for both the CSO and NCDT presentations. Now they were positioned up in the box seats, behind conductor/chorus whiz David Tang, and towering over the patrons near the orchestra pit. This was surround sound for real.

The impact was nothing short of electrifying when the throng -- including the Winthrop University Chorale, Charlotte Children's Choir, and Tang's Oratorio Singers -- launched into the richly harmonious and pulsating "O Fortuna" intro. Bonnefoux, clearly inspired by the passionate score, matched the electricity with solemn pageantry onstage and a stately procession down the aisles. The wandering theology students, known as Goliard Poets, who penned the original Latin poems early in the last millennium, would have been amazed. So would Orff, who composed his part of the masterwork in 1937.

The inspiration -- and the budgetary expenditure -- didn't stop there. Medieval costumes by Christina Giannini ranged brilliantly from the monastically austere to the ecclesiastically extravagant. There were rustic huntsmen, tavern carousers, peasant wenches, erotic cherubs, elegant gentry maidens, a trio of Botticelli Venuses, and a trio of lurid harlequin devils. Lighting designer Nate McGaha meshed perfectly with the costumes and Orff's vision.

Creative choices and technical polish were at the highest level from beginning to end of this ambitious new work. Works by Balanchine and Paul Taylor, presented prior to intermission, were nearly reduced to appetizers by the scale and sweep of Carmina. Bonnefoux has never before choreographed with such power and emotion.

Somewhere between the genesis of Fowl Play and the final outcome, Moving Poets choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler and scriptwriter Edwick Bingley (somebody's nom de plume, I'll bet) allowed a fine idea go astray. The idea was to update Tchaikovsky's classic while skewering the ballet cliches for which it stands. So the evil sorcerer Rothbart becomes the fabulously wealthy and corrupt rock star, Rock Baron, while Prince Siegfried becomes investment broker Ziggy Prince. As for Odette, the princess transformed by Rothbart into a swan, I'm not sure exactly what Schmidt/Bingley had in mind for her.

Rather than clarify what the latter-day swans are, Schmidt-Rimpler's energies seem to have been devoted to expanding what otherwise would have been a compact and intriguing evening of dance. This was done by giving Zig a meddlesome mom and three matrimonial prospects she recruits to redeem his life.

As a result, much of Act I of Fowl was the same old same old Poets that we've seen increasingly in recent years. Repetitive dance segments in the familiar Schimdt-Rimpler idiom, interlarded with satirical dialogue that has more attitude than point. New cliches for old.

When the mom and the blind dates are discarded for most of Act II, the strengths of Fowl came through undiluted. Rock hall-of-famer Tom Constanten contributed a disco "Swan Lake" and other delectable sounds, MyLoan Dinh's costumes became more extravagant and absurd, Schimdt-Rimpler finally found his skewer, and -- with two performers carrying the action onstage who can act and dance -- the Moving Poets mix of theater and dance suddenly seemed less like a series of speed bumps.

As the Zig, Bill Biondolino had all the nerdy, courtly, and princely aspects of our hero well within his grasp, acting nearly as well as he danced. Robert Lee Simmons feasted on the gothic outrageousness of Rock, the most charismatic MP performance since Tamara Scott's Salome. Janelle Eggleston, as the white swan, has never been more ethereal; and Sarah Emery, as the black swan, has never been more seductive.

When the new musicians and actors coordinated with the Moving Poets regulars -- and the company concept -- I was newly encouraged by their potential. Reaching it will take more discipline, more ruthless self-evaluation.

Speaking of your transforming animals, this is your final opportunity to see Claire Whitworth-Helm starring in The Velveteen Rabbit at Children's Theatre. It's her last outing with the Tarradiddle Players after eight superb years.

If ever there was a signature role among the Tarradiddle troubadours, Whitworth-Helm's bunny is it. Each time she reprises it, the rodent toy who aspires to be real is even more touching and adorable than before. Snag a set of tickets for yourself and your pre-schooler. Hop to it, in fact.*

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