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Dancing in and out of the dark

Enloe's annual dance program scores again

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I want you to know that this dance really isn't about anything. "Sometimes we dance from our memories, but mostly we dance from the darkness of our bones." Michelle Pearson's elliptical words, set against the audio backdrop of a family having fun outdoors, can be taken as a caution against the critical overanalysis of dance--quite possibly including something like the article you are reading now. She speaks the words after Allison Waddell borders the stage on three sides with separate lines of stone, sand and white feathers at the opening of Sub_stance, one of the most striking works showcased in Sunday's annual Enloe Dance Benefit Concert.

By now the fall invitational is a tradition, and a substantial show of support by the regional dance community for something quite rare: a public high school's modern dance program that continues to surprise us with exceptional achievements from an ever-changing pool of emerging choreographers.

In recent years, Enloe's rotating faculty has constituted a who's-who of the area's gifted young choreographers, including Tiffany Rhynard, Heather Mims and Jodi Obeid. This year, Waddell joins Courtney Greer, Patti Marks and Wilmington guest choreographer Harper Piver on the Enloe faculty.

Given the mind games already in play in Piver's strong, unsettling work in progress that opened Sunday's benefit, we're keeping a particular eye on this artist's tenure in Raleigh. Were her all-but-identically dressed and coiffed women, uniformly spaced as they moved across stage, cogs in a machine? Uniformly "beautiful"--and, above all, finished--products on a conveyor belt? Targets in a shooting gallery? Or possibly some combination of the three? We may learn more when the completed work premieres in December.

The concision and economy in Pearson and Waddell's duet found parallel in Betsy Ward-Hutchinson's promising new work, Hand Me Down. Three individuals on a bench in a Southern church of 40 years or more ago prayed, fanned themselves and either worked out their own salvation--or something else entirely--to Alison Krauss' version of "Down to the River to Pray." Are other works to come from the past?

Less concise, but still interesting: the excerpt from Time...Honored and Embodied, Even Exchange's intergenerational collaboration with Rainbow Dance Company on the process of aging--from childhood to advanced years.

And the same may definitely be said for Choreo Collective's Fortune. Choreographer Caroline Williford's examination of the word's contrasting definitions--financial and fateful, both in coin and the prophetic cookies obtained from Chinese restaurants--is undeniably witty. And thought-provoking: maybe, somewhere, typists on rolling office chairs are transcribing all of our fates on little slips of paper.

Still, a mid-work solo by Bridget Kelly continued after the point had been made, as did more than one saran-wrapped sequence toward the end of the work. The work we saw had been significantly edited from its springtime premiere. It was entirely the right thought for this work. More editing remains possible.

Postcards Project presented their first video dance, Julee Snyder's In Transit, in which a solitary dancer gets her wings--and little else--in an evocative, minimal, moody meditation arguably on what one gives up to achieve "perfection."

If you like musicals, you need to see Ragtime. If you don't like musicals, the same applies. That just about covers it, I think.

Those who tend to avoid musicals due to the fluff factor will be gratified by Terrence McNally's sprawling, brawling adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's epic best-seller, which lays both hands on the clash of cultures between rich and poor, the recently immigrated and those less recent, black and white, and innocence and cynicism at the turn of the last American century. It's sarcastic at times, satirical at others, bristling with anger and social conscience. Definitely not Oklahoma, in short.

Those who love musicals will be blown away--as a Sunday matinee audience definitely was--by one of the strongest musical ensembles of late under conductor McCrae Hardy's discerning hand. Vocalists including Norm Lewis as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Montego Glover as Sarah, dug into Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' Tony Award-winning score and libretto, mining raw desperation for love and equality. Local vocalist Yolanda Rabun's vocal turn at a mid-performance funeral set us all on the path for justice. The admitted shortage in sets placed even more emphasis on the acting and music--which entirely supported the extra scrutiny.

We need more musicals like Ragtime. Catch it and see if you don't agree.

Fresh evidence of fresh starts--as well as the distance remaining--were both on display during Saturday night's ArtsCenter 30th Anniversary Extravaganza. After executive director Jon Wilner vowed to return live theater to Earl Wynn Theater, theater director Lynden Harris thanked the audience for helping "usher ArtsCenter into middle age." From her commentary on the facility's "wrinkles, hard-won and well-deserved," Transactors Improv Company led off a 10-act showcase. Their edgy improv-comedy roast verged on gallows humor at points after the audience offered telling traits (like "red ink" and "a creaking stage") that they've come to associate with ArtsCenter. Greg Hohn was a standout as a suicidal financial director whose attempts were repeatedly interrupted by less-than-big-time donors.

Other high points included monologist and L.A. expatriate Jesse Kalisher's excerpts from his forthcoming one-man show, Dorrie Casey's classical music/theater hybrid, a stage adaptation of the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and National Hollerin' Champion Tony Peacock's down-home lecture/demonstration.

Less impressive was Chris Newlon's thin tone and wobbly high notes in his Durham Savoyards' duet from The Pirates of Penzance with Ann Marie Thomas. And though the material was strong, theater still didn't arguably put its best foot forward when David Berberian and Steve Scott were allowed on stage with scripts still in hand for two scenes no longer than three minutes each, weeks after they sealed Jerome Oster's victory in this year's Play Slam.

But the clearest measure of the work still ahead was arguably not on stage, but in the audience. When a fledgling theater draws an audience of 30--cast members not included--arguably it's a decent showing. An audience that size has a radically different meaning when it's all that convenes for an arts organization's 30th anniversary.

True, the tix were $25.00, for a show with a decent buffet. Still, the handful of people willing to ante up for the ArtsCenter's theatrical future based on its checkered past indicated a theater-going community's wait-and-see approach to the changes now in progress. Clearly, significant fence-mending and bridge re-building remains to be done.

Reviews
***1/2 The Misanthrope, Deep Dish Theater--Any critic could have told Alceste: Deep down, everybody wants a frank, unsparing critique--as long as it's about someone else, preferably out of earshot. In Moliere's farce, a foolish title character sickened by the hypocrisies of courtly life renounces social subterfuge, telling everyone exactly what he thinks of them. Then he demands his lady love, Celimene, join him in ascetic bliss. But hasn't that social butterfly a hidden, stinging wit--and a predilection for the intrigues Alceste despises?

In the title role, Roman Pearah is redirected to the comic extremities we enjoyed in 2002's Arms and the Man. Katja Hill charms early as Celimene; as her character's few small foibles are revealed, Hill deftly turns her into something just a bit more out of Edward Gorey. Memorable turns from Nicole Farmer as the catty Arsinoe and Jack Prather, Thomas King and Tommy Van Hoang as assorted fops add to the savor. Occasionally cloying rhymed couplets seem unavoidable in Moliere translations; Richard Wilbur's fares better than most. Moliere's social criticism is sharp and never forgets that the joke's ultimately on us. Recommended.

(University Mall, Chapel Hill. Thursday-Sunday, through Sept. 18. $14-$5. 968-1515.)

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