Jane Vranish | Guest Reviewer
Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, as author John Gray once suggested in his 1992 book. But the eternal interplay between the sexes has been a constant source of fascination to society throughout the centuries.
But nowhere is it more fascinating than in dance, as shown during North Carolina Dance Theatre’s journey Wednesday night in its latest edition of “An Evening of Pas de Deux.”
Lately there have been rare occasions when duets have been choreographed for men and, on rarer occasions, two women might take the stage. But the traditional pas de deux form evolved from full-length classical ballets, using a slow, supported opening called an adagio, followed by solo variations for the male and female. It culminated in a coda, where the dancers could unleash their technical brilliance in alternating dance passages filled with high-flying jump combinations for the man, succeeded by scintillating pointe work for the woman and dazzling turns for both.
All of it was virtually guaranteed to whip an audience into a frenzy, which happened during the opening selection in the Amphitheater, “Grand Pas Classique,” a stand-alone pas de deux choreographed by Victor Gsovsky for Les Ballets de Champs-Elysées in 1949.
The hint lies in the title, intimating a confidence and skill in its traditional technical values. Partnered by a convincing Addul Manzano in the adagio, Sarah Hayes Watson immediately established a new authority from the start and, although her balances were not all consistent, she never lost focus.
They both set new standards for themselves during the variations, with Manzano adding a clarity to his footwork and lines amid beats and aerial turns. Hayes Watson had pinpoint accuracy during the famous releve sequence. They carried it all to a fitting climax — he with some brilliant brisés, she with a breathless series of whipping fouettes that included several double turns.
There would be a fitting comparison to the the “Black Swan Pas de Deux,” but Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux chose the “White Swan,” a more organic part of the second act from “Swan Lake” and a sustained adagio that acquaints Odette and Prince Siegfried.
It requires a certain vulnerability on her part, but Anna Gerberich occasionally accented the phrasing more in keeping with the boldness of Odile, the Black Swan. Yet the petite, young dancer showed great promise in developing an expansive lyrical quality that she will undoubtedly fulfill in ensuing years. In conveying the developing romance, Manzano was obviously fascinated with the lovely creature he discovered in the forest and wonderfully supportive of her throughout.
It provided the source for the rest of the program, which explored relationships using diverse concepts and sculptural designs, for these days the pas de deux doesn’t have to follow the traditional formula à la “Grand Pas Classique” and “Black Swan.” It can simply be a duet that plumbs the exquisite tension and endless variety of interconnections between the male and the female, much like Marius Petipa did so long ago in “White Swan.”
The remaining six ballets did just that. The company recently lost a fistful of veteran dancers who went a long way in establishing the company’s outgoing image, including Alessandra Ball, Rebecca Carmazzi, Traci Gilchrest, David Ingram and Justin VanWeest. So it is a company in transition. But this “Pas de Deux” program was just the ticket to bring other dancers successfully to the fore and to unfold some new and exciting talent.
Ms. Gerberich played the “Queen” in Sasha Janes’ piece, the story of a medieval soldier who rejected her directive to go to war. In the past, she has served more as the leading NCDT ingenue, but the petite ballerina took on this weighty role, perhaps to develop a more mature, larger-than-life stage presence. The duet was essentially an argument with the kind of close contact that bordered on sexual innuendo. But it appeared that the soldier, played by the tall, virile Pete Walker, had the upper hand at times, but inexplicably never took advantage of it.
Walker was paired with Jamie Dee in “Resolution,” Janes’ heavenly duet filled with soaring lifts and partnering, although the idea of a man who is resistant to death and the angel who was there to persuade him did not always carry throughout the work.
Dee took a comic turn with David Morse in Mark Diamond’s “UHH!,” an obviously deliberate title that reflected on long-term marriages. It was easy to take the awkwardness of Ruth Buzzi and Henry Gibson from the ’70’s series “Laugh-In” and magnify their characters through movement in this sharply etched character skit.
Diamond had the most range to display when he staged “Expectations,” a 180-degree turn from “UHH!” Here, he explored the problems encountered when a wife starts to look beyond the confines of her marriage, but is reigned in by a dominating husband.
Where the other duet was over-the-top, this one was remarkably nuanced. Naseeb Culpepper gently, but firmly turned Patricia Keleher’s head, shook her shoulders in an almost beautiful way and stopped her by holding her back foot in arabesque. Newcomers Keleher, who took the time to develop a shape in a manner far beyond her years, and Culpepper, who was somewhat restrained, played with the light and dark of a complex issue.
Other newcomers stretched the idea of the pas de deux, along with stretching the company look. You could call them extreme ballet dancers, with the kind of hyper-flexibility found in dance competition circles.
Melissa Anduiza danced a duet that was a solo with a partner hidden in the confines of her heart. Called “Yapos at Paalum” and meaning “Embrace and Say Farewell,” it conveyed the concept in a memorable fashion, without becoming overly emotional.
A trio performed an excerpt from Dwight Rhoden’s “Artifice,” which apparently got its inspiration from a circus and employed various forms of puppetry and/or manipulation. To stay within the duet format, Jordan Leeper took turns with Christina LaForgia and Emily Ramirez. Rhoden exploited their vivid dance styles, but the score, which inexplicably turned into an almost surreal play on “Agnus Dei,” faded out in ragged fashion.
Bonnefoux and his staff know how to pick their performers, and there was no doubt that the dancers resonated with the audience. It will be an interesting ride for the rest of the summer as they collectively push NCDT in a new direction.
Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contibuting writer. Her stories can be read on the dance blog “Cross Currents” at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.