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North Carolina Museum of Art Spotlights Choreographers and Proves Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet

Conceptually, ballet may not feel widely accessible or understood to the general public. It often evokes inaccessibility and weightiness. But at its most fundamental level, ballet is composed of rhythm and movement. As director/choreographer and performer Darius Barnes said at the North Carolina Museum of Art, “ballet is dance.” And on that night, amid excruciating heat and the advancing dusk, a mesmerizing pair of such dances was performed.

Produced by Carolina Ballet, the new Choreography Series at the museum consisted of two parts: an introduction delivered by Carolina Ballet’s Director Zalman “Zali” Raffael and staged like a rehearsal, and a performance of two choreographed numbers. 

During the first half, Raffael led his dancers through a number of musically-accompanied ballet exercises. This was clearly intended to be for the benefit of an audience who may be unfamiliar with ballet and to establish a common “vocabulary” of moves with which to parse the subsequent performances.

“Ballet is a language,” Raffael asserted, while his pupils manipulated their extremities with tongue-like subtlety and control.

“Piqué, plié, détourné,” he announced, while demonstrating how patterns of steps and rhythms construct “legible sentences.” 

During intermission, Moses T. Alexander Greene, director of film and performing arts at NCMA, moderated a discussion with Carolina Ballet Curating Director Richard Glover and Choreographer/Director/Performer Darius Barnes. Barnes, who is an accomplished Broadway performer, briefly discussed his career and the intentions behind his work. And while interesting enough in its own right, this segment seemed a bit out of place, occurring directly before the performance for which Barnes provided his analyses.

Once the performance properly began, dancers lined up on stage for the first piece, To Keep in Touch. The piece opened with a recorded diary entry, recounting the time the diarist lost her virginity. The dancers began to move, peeling away from one another – slow at first, then crescendo, accelerando – recalling the fluid nature of the narrated imagery. As the speed of the action began to increase, what had begun musically as a low-energy ambient soundtrack began to dissolve into a cacophony of instrumentation. Dancers leaped and tossed each other high in the air and contorted towards the ground in a flurry of movement; it was easy to get lost in the heady mixture of overlapping patterns and multi-sensory stimulation. And at the very height of this pitch, the piece ended abruptly.

Choreographed by Amy Hall-Gardner, the second piece, Suite 44, was a kind of modern homage to big band music and swing dancing. In distinction to the studied distances of the To Keep In Touch, Suite 44 was a panoply of intimacy and touch. Adorned in conventionally gendered costumes, couples weaved in and out of one another, embellishing the classic swing dips and sways from these familiar genres with modern interpretive flair. Admittedly, this scaffolding of heteronormative-reading partners felt a bit staid, particularly having just witnessed an admirable circumvention of those conventions in the previous piece.

Despite this, however, the performers’ technical skill was laudable. The tightness of each couples’ movements impressively conveyed a meaningful organization of space. Here was the coincidence of sound and meaning, rhythm and form.

The overall success of this historic first collaboration between the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Carolina Ballet, was quite admirable.  The series debut was an excellent precursor to next month’s American Dance Festival performances, which will also be held at the NCMA.

The American Dance Festival runs September 9 through 16. For more information visit https://americandancefestival.org/.

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