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Imagine All the Artists 

Moving poets depart in style

Imagine a talented circle of actors, dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors and filmmakers, getting together to bridge the borderlines between their art forms -- and creating new, vibrant, spontaneous work in the process. We'll need to imagine it now that Moving Poets have staged their final Charlotte-based production and moved on.

They gathered their talents -- and their devoted followers -- at Hart-Witzen Gallery last weekend for Surprise! Surprise! Like so many Poets projects before, this production was an exuberant mélange, celebrating the past, unveiling promising new seedlings for the future, and solemnizing the grim underfunded present.

With a few folding chairs, lights, a live quintet, a small dance corps and some of Charlotte's finest actors holding scripts in hand, Poets gave us a satisfying taste of playwright James McLure's new work-in-progress, the entire first act of Saving Grace. The Poets cofounders, Till Schmidt-Rimpler and Randell Haynes, figured prominently. While Haynes directed, Schmidt-Rimpler danced onstage, intertwining six newly morphed choreographies from past shows.

Then after intermission, we had the Poets version of a greatest hits medley, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the company's dizzying eclecticism. By the end of the evening, all the usual dance suspects had appeared. They all haunted the stage together for the final reprise of Contact from 1996, bringing the entire 10-year history of the company full circle. A Chopin nocturne, a Poets original and Bruch's Kol Nidre deepened the gravity.

Throughout the 2006 Contact, painter Osiris Rain produced an impromptu three-wall mural, sometimes tracing along the bodies of the dancers as he painted. Sculptor Kit Cube lurked on the side, lighting the dance with the intricate patterns of his kinetic pieces.

Haynes upstaged them all, sporting an absurd beret, circling the huge stage on a Razor Scooter, and spouting Oscar Wilde's choicest wickedness on the uselessness of art. The creative chaos of Contact perfectly modeled the precious gem Charlotte has squandered away: artsy, multifaceted, hypnotic, seductive, poignant and perfectly tuned in its plucky impudence.

At the start of the celebration, Schmidt-Rimpler and his wife MyLoan Dinh, the group's able costumer/promoter, took turns thanking the audience for their enthusiasm and support over the years. Each appended a plea that the audience seriously consider financially supporting Charlotte theater directly, since the county's Arts & Science Council gives such short shrift to theater companies when distributing the fruits of its impressive fund-raising.

S-R and spouse could have mentioned the shorter shrift the ASC gives to our theater artists, but the show demonstrated that quite well. As does the departure of Moving Poets.

The Poets choreographies certainly added some kick to McLure's gestating piece, desperately needed despite Cody Harding and Jerry Colbert's fine performances as Grace and her therapist. Were it not for Schmidt-Rimpler slithering across the floor in pursuit of Sarah Emery, exhuming a chunk of macabre choreography from Dracula (surely the most memorable grave-robbing of the night), Grace might have been instantly dismissed as warmed-over Three Faces of Eve.

Aside from the convergence of theater and dance, perhaps the finality of what Poets had put together in a matter of weeks added an extra luster to Grace and the rest of the evening. That finality may also explain why all the cabaret tickets were spoken for last Friday, plus many more folding chairs spread out behind the club tables at the back of the theater to accommodate the overflowing crowd.

Rightly, the galvanized audience focused on the energy, the creativity and the rich variety of the spectacle rather than its occasional rawness or its flaws. At last, we understood what the Poets were attempting and what they meant.

While a crematory aroma hovered over the valediction at the Hart-Witzen, fresh life was sprouting at the Belk, where North Carolina Dance Theatre unveiled a new version of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. In mood as well as storyline, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's new concept is an unmistakable departure from Sal Aiello's way with Peter Ilych and E.T.A. Hoffman.

No, Bonnefoux isn't sidling over to fill the void left by Moving Poets' exit. He's even shunning the Freudian subtext that lurked beneath Aiello's Nut.

This Nut is unabashedly traditional, filled with color and joy -- running wild with children. Perception can play some frolicsome tricks on a critic who has no live documentary record of previous performances, but there seemed to be new life in Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's rendition of the score. Under Alan Yamamoto's baton, brass sounded tighter and more piercing, percussion was brighter and splashier.

Sure, these musical perceptions may have been deceptively infused with the new sets, steps and youthfulness of Bonnefoux's concept -- or mere by-products of sitting closer to the action. But occasionally, I also felt like Bonnefoux was asking Yamamoto to push the tempo a little faster, adding to the overall exuberance.

NCDT's children, proud products of the company's school, are now as impressive as they are cute -- individually and in multiple ensembles. Ellen Hummel, a mere fledgling of 14, had the onus of carrying the first act as Clara on opening night. She did so admirably, the essence of innocent juvenile grace, loving her new nutcracker just a tad more than her eccentric benefactor, the mephisto Drosselmeyer.

As Drosselmeyer, Mark Diamond reciprocated by loving his Clara only a tad less than the magical sensations he delivered. Bonnefoux and Diamond haven't altogether bleached this April-November affection of impurities, but they've delightfully pushed it to the heart of the narrative. Diamond's superb character acting is all snuggles and conjuration before intermission, but in Act 2, he gets to round out his portraiture, sweeping the floor between the confectionary divertissements.

Alain Vaes's design for Sugar Plum Fairyland really is confectionary, with columns of peppermint canes, regal crests of pecans and distant whipped-cream mountains topped with cherries. We were lucky to get Vaes's set designs on loan, since Bonnefoux's makeover will take another three years to flesh out. Doubly lucky, because the Vaes designs were available when they were needed in Charlotte, and because Vaes was Bonnefoux's designer for his new Cinderella earlier this season. Kindred spirits.

Tracy Gilchrest basked in the spotlight throughout Act 2 as the ultra-elegant Sugar Plum Fairy. She reigned most supremely partnered with Abdul Manzano in the "Grand Pas de Deux" and was exquisitely commanding in her eponymous dance.

Most delicious among the dessert treats were Justin Van Weest as Candy Cane, Meredith Hinshaw as the wide-skirted Mother Ginger, and the sinuous Nicholle Rochelle as Coffee. Other delights included Silas Farley's triumphant Nutcracker Prince, Daniel Gillard's vanquished Mouse King, Rebecca Carmazzi's ethereal Snow Queen, and the superbly prepared battalions of small fry, 100 strong.

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