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Mondrian on crack: NC Dance Theatre is 40 

When the lowlight in an evening of dance is a choreography by the legendary George Balanchine, you'd ordinarily assume that the company presenting the program had been overreaching in attempting the work of the great New York City Ballet master. But in the case of North Carolina Dance Theatre, celebrating its 40th anniversary with a program called Director's Choice, it was an exceptional company on an exceptional night at Knight Theater.

For all of Addul Manzano's elegance partnering the graceful Alessandra Ball in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Balanchine's 1960 reclamation of music long missing from a revised edition of Swan Lake, the piece looked rather pallid after the sizzling sensuality of Salvatore Aiello's Satto (Wind Dance). Yet NCDT director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's choice to conclude the celebration, the world premiere of Dwight Rhoden's Reflections Of ..., upstaged Balanchine's gem even more resoundingly with its exuberant hyper-energy.

The evening began thrillingly enough with the Bubenic brothers' Le Souffle de l'Èsprit, an amazingly apt work to bookend Rhoden's premiere. This work not only filled the Knight stage with over a dozen dancers, as would Reflections Of ..., it placed them in front of a huge picture frame. In Rhoden's piece, the projection screen within the frame "reflected" a fast-moving parade of works by Charlotte art icon Romare Bearden. In Souffle, we began with a hugely magnified detail of a drawing. Only when it receded could we recognize the first of a succession of works by Leonardo da Vinci.

Jiri Bubenic is the choreographer of the 2007 piece, but his brother Otto's contributions — including costume designs, video, and the chunks of the musical score sandwiched around the Bach, Pachelbel, and Roman Hoffstetter — were just as crucial to the overall effect. Otto's music gave way to Bach's "Air on a G String" at about the time the Da Vinci scenography coalesced into the first of a series of drawings of female faces. At that same moment, a trio of somewhat moribund male dancers dressed chastely in white were joined onstage by a pair of females in complementary outfits. Activity livened considerably with these female onsets, leaving no doubt who personified "l'Èsprit" in the brothers' concept.

Manzano was certainly a key component here, taking a central position with Max Levy and Pete Walker in the solemn opening, performing a solo after the ensuing quintet, and at the climax of the chaste bacchanal set to Pachelbel's "Canon," reappearing with his torso bared. We circled back nearly to the beginning as Otto's music reprised, with the trio becalmed until a wench jumped into Levy's arms before the blackout.

Satto was last performed here in 2005, marking Sasha Janes' debut in the scant loincloth opposite Mia Cunningham. While Janes reprised his exotic role, Anna Gerberich replaced Cunningham in the vaguely reptilian bodysuit. The primal jungle magic is further conjured by Janes and Gerberich dancing in a narrow, slatted band of brilliant light by Randall Henderson to a fluting music score by Katshtoshi Nagasawa and Chip Davis. Primeval abruptly turned psychedelic whenever Janes or Gerberich moved swiftly across the light, creating a strobe effect.

No doubt about it, Bearden inspired Rhoden to his folksiest, joyfullest choreography yet. Eighteen dancers are in the concept with a score that ranges from Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing" to traditional church Gospel hymns to Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." The vitality, variety, and jubilant African-American spirit of the piece warrant mention in the same breath as Alvin Ailey's Revelations — except for the costumes. Make no mistake, the kaleidoscopic variations on the same basic design by Christine Darch are absolute knockouts, like Mondrian on crack. They just don't change during Reflections Of ... or take us on an epic journey as Revelations does. But the one groove we stay in, amid the swirl of Bearden imagery, is mighty fine.

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