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Stepping it up at NCDT 

And masterful maestros

Whether you are looking for down-and-dirty on your dance card, exotic, frenetic, robotic, or serene, North Carolina Dance Theatre has it all at Booth Playhouse in their annual Innovative Works anthology. The five choreographers represented in the 2006 edition are as diverse in their concepts as you could possibly wish, and the music that inspires them spans the modern universe.

An aura of abstraction adheres to the mood and thrust of the music, so the new idioms of movement seem spontaneously birthed from their musical wombs. Yet even as they veer into terra incognita, each of these canny choreographers is calling upon dance skills honed at NCDT over long hours at the barre, occasionally taking the dancers to their limits. Or a leap beyond.

Heather Ferranti Ferguson, an NCDT veteran herself (though currently on (highly visible) maternity leave), puts her dancers on heel as often as she puts them on toe in the exotic curtain-raiser, "Seed." East delightfully meets West as Ferguson sets a mix of Chinese and Japanese folk melodies, transmuted through recordings by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to a quaint mixture of Asiatic poses/tableaux and some peppy stepping. Balance tips decisively Eastward with Ferguson's stark black-and-red costume design, richly complemented by Nate McGaha's lighting.

From the Orient, we sashayed down home to the music of Nina Simone in Septime Webre's sassy new triptych, you/me/we. I expected the piece to peak with the Rebecca Carmazzi-Sasha Janes pas de deux on the torchy "Ne Me Quitte Pas." But after Randolph Ward's mildly conjuring solo on "Put a Spell on You," Traci Gilchrest and André Teixiera fairly fried my optic nerve with their torrid rendition of "Be Your Husband." No deep explication required, except perhaps yeow!

The only piece on the bill that wasn't a world premiere last Friday was Daniel Gwirtzman's Cycles, but it's an exception worth having. Set to a rather ambient score by Terre Thaemlitz, the robotic choreography is consonant, and in time, with the music as the action begins. Yet gradually, the dancers become less and less in-sync with the score as the hostility, latent in the rigid moves of the opening segments, blossoms into violence and chaos. Another fascinating departure.

Mark Diamond has been the dean of NCDT's innovators in past years with his edgy, campy, satirical, attitude-heavy explorations. So I can't begrudge him the impulse to do something pure, simple, and lyrical while showcasing the artistry of young classical guitarist Adam Whiting, who performs onstage opposite the three sprites who represent Aqua Terra Flora in Diamond's new work. After this punchless spectacle, however, I'd advise Diamond to put his fist back in his glove.

NCDT's new resident director Dwight Rhoden proves to be a fine finisher in this lineup, taking on the raunchiest, screechiest, super-amped music of the night in Moody Booty Blues. Just to suggest that Rhoden is equal to the task of matching up the energies of NCDT's dancers to the fire of Roy Buchanan's "A Guitar Plays the Blues" ought to be enough to convince you to give the PAC box office a buzz. But that piece is merely Rhoden rolling up his sleeves for nastier, low-down, dirty doings in Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy," Son House's "Grinnin' in Your Face," and Stevie Ray Vaughn's "Love Struck Baby."

This may be the best Innovative yet, right on cue for its expansion to a two-week run.

Charlotte Symphony orchestra came up with an inspired way to celebrate its 75th anniversary, inviting back all its past living music directors for a unique Return of the Maestros concert last Saturday night. After CSO executive director Richard Early made some genial acknowledgements and prefatory remarks, the microphone was discreetly left at the lip of the Belk Theater stage, where each of the returnees would pass on his way to the podium.

We knew at least one of the visitors would plant himself behind that mic, but Peter McCoppin (1993-2000) wasn't scheduled to perform until after intermission. Current maestro Christof Perick, ever the gracious, unassuming host, sauntered by the mic and launched into the overture to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Early explained the history, that this was the first piece of music ever presented by the company in March 1932. Then Perick & Co. performed it with a purposefulness and precision those amateurs could only dream of, with a long, long crescendo at the end that seemed to presage Rossini's Barber.

Henry Janiec (1958-1963) also bypassed the mic, wisely conserving his energy to reach the music stand. Once he gave the downbeat to Berlioz' "Roman Carnival Overture," the spryness of his music-making belied his labored gait. If the stop-and-go opening was a tad scattershot, the merry-go-round righted itself when Terry Maskin did his English horn spot, and the swift midsection of this bonbon had a swift, frisky gallop.

Richard Cormier (1963-1967) had a few gracious remarks to make about Charlotte and how far the city had come to achieve the aspirations he remembered from 40 years ago. Then he led the ensemble in the finale of Dvorak's Symphony #8, the first work he conducted with CSO. If the trumpets weren't exactly crisp in the opening fanfare, the trombones' neighing had a forwardness and power you don't often hear in recordings.

Looking like a crazed idealist, or a member of the Addams Family, Jacques Brourman (1967-1976) strode to the podium and cagily leaned on the strengths of CSO's fine wind soloists in the opening of Enescu's *Rumanian Rhapsody #1. Brourman's Transylvanian intensity chimed in quite engagingly after an overly dolorous patch when we segued to the folksy high-energy section. Ali Kavadlo had a rare cadenza on viola and Eugene Kavadlo added a couple of klezmer licks on clarinet to heighten the merriment.

Leo Driehuys (1977-1993), the maestro who greeted us at the dawn of the Loaf Era, had a charming anecdote to tell about coming to live in Charlotte. Then he guided the orchestra he first brought to the Belk in Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. Once again, the winds were outstanding, and the trumpet fanfares were superb. Some perfunctory playing crept into the string sections midway through, but the zest of the soloists was ultimately contagious, so the strings caught the fever when it was most needed.

Perhaps feeling a compulsion to be brief, McCoppin brought even more than his customary eloquence to the mic. The stage, the hall, and the audience were almost instantly his. Nor was he guilty of empty posturing as he led the CSO in Part III, "The Love Scene", of Berlioz' dramatic Romèo et Juliette symphony. Suddenly, the strings had a finesse and sensitivity to go with their power. Always a performer, you could watch McCoppin shaping the phrasing and willing the emotion from the strings. Look, Ma, he had new moves and gestures, plus born timing. Electric.

Perick had the good sense not to compete. At the mic or with the baton. His impeccable reading of Mozart's Symphony #36 couldn't help but seem anticlimactic, though the concluding presto was crowned with Haydnesque lilt and Wolfie youthfulness. Fortunately, Perick and his co-conspirators had a final surprise up their sleeves.

After all the maestros took their bows together, Janiec snuck back to the podium while the others departed to the wings. The wily coot produced a baton from up his sleeve and proceeded to lead the orchestra in a Sousa, and the audience in handclaps. Then Cormier strode out, took Janiec's place, and repeated his antics. And so on, through McCoppin, a literal passing of the baton from one era to the next.

We had to love it.

About halfway through Theatre Charlotte's fine new production of On Golden Pond, a pebble of suspicion began rolling around in my thoughts that became a boulder of surprised certainty by evening's end. After checking my records at home, I am now certain that I had never before seen a complete performance of Ernest Thompson's chef d'oeuvre onstage or onscreen.

That's not so much a measure of my negligence as a measure of how devoutly I've avoided this show, dreading its cracker-barrel wisdom, its hackneyed parent-child squabbles, and its saccharinity. So my recommendation must be taken with a grain of salt if you've always adored Henry Fonda's crotchetiness, Jane's whining, and Kate Hepburn's octogenarian cackle.

Under Frank Dominguez' direction, the tone is much more comical than sentimental. Anthony Liguori does the best Maine accent when he gets his nose properly into his vowels, but the strength of this show rests firmly in the chemistry established between Alan England, as Norman Thayer, and Gloria King as his wife Ethel. England doesn't have all the mannerisms of old age down pat, and wastes too much energy trembling, but he has the essence of the man to the bone. Speaking, listening, or reacting, King gives an amazingly natural performance. Yes, she flubs some lines, but she's old, dammit!

Sarah Lewis' take on Chelsea is unsure but watchable, and even Matthew Corbett transcends his usual woodenness as Chelsea's dentist fiancè. Do watch out for Andrew Griner as the stepson-to-be who steals gramps' heart. Cute kid. Could steal yours.

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