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Dance Theatre finds poetry and drama in going green

Steven Brown
The Charlotte Observer

One of the best things about uniting the annual "Innovative Works" program with a theme - the environment - is that N.C. Dance Theatre doesn't overdo it. No topic, not even the earth, comes off well when it's driven into the ground.

NCDT, which premiered the program Thursday, avoids the trap. The compact works on the bill include some - such as Mark Diamond's "Higher Consciousness" - whose spoken texts leave no doubt what they're about. At the other extreme, Dwight Rhoden's "Spill" is abstract enough that you don't necessarily have to relate it to oil-well accidents at all. Anything that causes nine people to be anxious and driven could be behind it.

But even "Higher Consciousness," with its spoken epigrams interspersed with the dancing, is concise and lively enough that it doesn't wear thin. And as another counterweight to any earnestness, Diamond's "Runway" ends the show by giving recycling a new twist: It sets the dancers loose in a fashion show of costumes made from packing popcorn, bubble wrap, bottle caps and other things you probably never thought of as fabrics. But costume designer Erika Diamond, the choreographer's artist daughter, saw the possibilities.

Choreographer Sasha Janes, an NCDT dancer, reclaims the title "Tree Hugger" from its fate as a term of opprobrium. Anyone who remembers Janes' idyllic duet a few years ago to a Handel aria will probably welcome this trio, which springs from equally lyrical roots.

Anna Gerberich emerges from behind the audience. She steps onto the stage, accompanied by a man's recorded voice describing a verdant riverside. She jumps onto the shoulders of David Ingram and Dustin Layton - representing the tree, no doubt - but Janes doesn't wear out the symbol. The two men go into action, floating Gerberich away - to the strains of mellifluous Ravel piano music - into dreamland. The three dancers make it looks easy.

Janes' "Kinetic Energy" isn't supposed to look easy. It literally gives six dancers a workout - and the choreographer gets into the act by setting the pace on a treadmill behind them. The free-spirited cast includes a new member of the company: Pete Walker, whose vigor and incisiveness help the energy level stay high. Another new member of the troupe, David Morse, gets into the act by playing the semi-improvised piano part that helps drive things along.

"Arson" is dancer Ingram's debut with NCDT as a choreographer, and it's the most atmospheric work in the show. As it opens, the dancers are covered in a powder that represents ashes. Most of its shakes off them - in an eye-catching swirl at one point. But the fossil-fuel danger it stands for lingers with the dancers, and Ingram's choreography is a fascinating mix of tension, pensiveness and tenderness.

The eight dancers bring it intensity and commitment. Morse gets to leave the keyboard and dance. And the conclusion is anchored by another newcomer, Melissa Anduiza. She sweeps herself away in the work's tensions, but also speaks poignantly with her arms reaching simply in front of her. Welcome to the company.