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Performers put movies into motion

Show includes tales by Alfred Hitchcock and Tennessee Williams, plus dance with death.
By Steven Brown

Fairy tales. Great literary works. Even symphonic music with no specific stories at all.

Ballets have grown from all of them. Now N.C. Dance Theatre has put three choreographers on the trail of an art form that didn't even exist when Tchaikovsky looked for material: the movies.

Audiences will see the results beginning Thursday, when the curtain goes up on a program NCDT dubs “A Night at the Movies.”

Mark Diamond, director of the NCDT2 training troupe, explores a supernatural love story from the 1930s. Dwight Rhoden, NCDT's resident choreographer, distills a stage-and-screen classic. Guest choreographer Nicolo Fonte looks at how Alfred Hitchcock revealed himself through his work.

Here's a look at the coming attractions:

‘Immortal Design'

Diamond was drawn to “Death Takes a Holiday” by its style as well as its story.

In the 1934 film, death grows curious about why humans fear him. So the grim reaper takes a decidedly un-grim human form – that of a prince played by matinee idol Fredric March – and comes to Earth, where he learns about love.

“It's a really beautiful film,” Diamond says. The high-society setting in a duke's villa gives death “this elegance that we both idealize and fear.” The camera lingers over important images. The rich black-and-white cinematography enhances the atmosphere.

Diamond aims to crystallize all this in his “Immortal Design.” At about 15 minutes long, it obviously can't contain every character and plot line from the film. Diamond welcomes that, he says. It lets him concentrate on “the gist of it”: the relationship between death's human incarnation and the young woman who's attracted to him even after she learns his true identity.

“That makes it a love story, when you come down to it,” Diamond says.

In the film, Diamond notes, soliloquies enable March's Prince Sirki to muse on his experiences on Earth. In ballet, of course, he reacts to the mortal world through gestures. He explores his human form by touching his jugular, head, heart and wrist – “where all the main blood lines are,” Diamond says.

Death's earthly adventure plays out to dark-hued sounds of Johannes Brahms: the first movement of his Symphony No. 4. The music, Diamond says, is “haunting.”

“When we rehearse,” Diamond adds, “it's lucky that I'm across the studio, because I'm humming along with the whole thing.”

‘Cat'

Rhoden's new work grows out of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tennessee Williams' story of a family pulled apart by secrets. Though it began as a play, Hollywood made a screen version in 1958 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

A couple of years ago, Rhoden created a short duo centering on the characters portrayed by Taylor and Newman: Maggie and her tormented husband, Brick. At NCDT's behest, Rhoden has expanded that into a 30-minute work that aims to project “the arc of the story.”

“It's very spare,” Rhoden says. “It's very abstract. But I'm hoping you'll get where we're going.”

Rhoden admires Williams' powerful dialogue along with everyone else. But wordless dancers make their own contribution, he says, by capturing “the attitudes and feelings in how each of them moves.”

The stresses and strains in Williams' Pollitt family particularly lend themselves to physical expression.

A line in the play, Rhoden notes, likens Brick to a doubled-up fist. He's “very tense, very unhappy, very troubled.” When he flares up at Maggie, “at times she fights him, at times she turns and walks away,” Rhoden adds. Yet “she never gives up on her husband.”

The confrontations between Brick and Big Daddy, his merciless father, also benefit from dance's visceral impact. But time limits have kept out one element of Brick's extended family: his brother Gooper's children, labeled in the play and movies as “no-neck monsters.”

Maybe they'll make it in if Rhoden gets to do yet another expansion.

“To show all the sentiment and all the action screams for it to be longer than half an hour,” Rhoden says. “I'm hoping to build it out.”

Hitchcock trio

Rather than evoking one movie, Nicolo Fonte is embracing three: Alfred Hitchcock's “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “The Birds.”

No, he isn't trying to squeeze their entire stories into his half-hour work. He's focusing on a thread that ties them together.

“It … winds back to (Hitchcock), and how he had this strange apparent need to destroy his female leads,” Fonte says. “Vertigo,” he adds, epitomizes this.

“The main male character just wants to transform the female character back to someone he fell in love with,” Fonte says. “He forces her to buy different clothes and dye her hair blond.”

“Hitchcock experts say this is like reading his diary. It's kind of a confession … This is really what he wanted to do to all his leading ladies. I thought this was a really interesting idea to explore.”

Fonte sees a parallel between Hitchcock's style and ballet. Hitchcock, he explains, often wants viewers to go beyond his characters' words. Camera angles, facial expressions and the prevailing tension also reveal what's going on. Fonte thinks movement can have a similar force in leaving words behind.

So his new work will have an episode focusing on each of his three films, encapsulating the heroine's situation and what ensues. Music from Bernard Herrmann's soundtracks will intensify what happens.

This is only the second time in Fonte's career as a choreographer, he says, that he has based a work on a narrative. He already has an idea for his third one.

“I also love the idea of choreographing ‘The Matrix,'” he says. “That would be fantastic. But … you would need a ton of money to work it out.”