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Charlotte Ballet’s Alejandro Cerrudo Boldly Breaks Boundaries

Lineup gets a revamp in the coming year by the Ballet's artistic director

Photo from a performance of Mthuthuthzeli November’s From Africa With Love
Mthuthuthzeli November’s From Africa With Love (Photo by Taylor Jones)

With a lineup that has repeatedly included Fall Works, Spring Works, Innovative Works, and Nutcracker over recent seasons, it isn’t too harsh to say that Charlotte Ballet’s programming could stand a refresh — or at the very least, a more dynamic approach to its marketing.

They’ve been pouring mostly new wine into those old bottles in recent years, but an aroma of predictability was beginning to seep in.

Now in his second year as artistic director — and fielding the first full season he has chosen himself — Alejandro Cerrudo is starting to shake things up. The “Works” must not have been working, for Cerrudo has banished all three from Charlotte Ballet’s 2023-’24 lineup.

Starting out the season at the McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance instead of waiting until winter, Cerrudo is setting the tone with Breaking Boundaries, which runs through October 28. It’s more than a name change; Cerrudo is innovating how the Center’s studio and lobby spaces are used.

Partnering with Middle C Jazz and the Charlotte Art League, he’s also extending intermission and making it a more integral part of the experience. Afterward, assigned seating goes away.

For that reason and others, the world premiere of Mthuthuthzeli November’s From Africa With Love is actually the more conventional choreography now on display at the McBride-Bonnefoux as part of Breaking Boundaries. That is not at all to discount or belittle the beauty, deep emotional resonance, and cohesiveness of November’s artistry, including his costume design and musical composition.

Nor should you think that less of an assault on boundaries implies none. What we might expect out of From Africa are eye-popping colors, primitive revelry, jungle cats, or savannah beasts, syncopated with intensive drumming.

What inspires the South African-born choreographer and costume designer instead are mauve-colored ostriches from his native land that Charlotte Ballet’s dancers’ grace will have you associating with flamingoes. First the women dance quietly into the intimately-lit studio space with their matching mauve skirts and leotards, almost floating across the floor.

Mildly surprising, the men join in shortly afterwards wearing similar outfits, their skirts destined to serve as their plumage in the final tableau. Initially, they are different from the women but the same, whether we view them as human or animal. November pointedly freezes the ensemble for a moment or two in a formation without symmetry or geometry, so we behold their randomness, diversity, and harmony like a vast meadow teeming with life, peacefully grazing, somehow safe from predators. Lighting design by Aaron Muhl adds mystery and magic.

A couple of tracks, “Ibuyile l’Africa (Africa Is Back)” and “Qhawe (Hero),” from South African cellist Abel Selaocoe’s debut Where Is Home album, animate most of the movement and define its range once the full ensemble gathers. There is ethereal solemnity when the tempos are halting; while singing, exultation, and defiant guttural exhortation drive the quickened choreography over a pulsating drumbeat and handclaps.

Mthuthuthzeli November’s From Africa With Love
Mthuthuthzeli November’s From Africa With Love (Photo by Taylor Jones)

Seamlessly, our attention narrows to a single couple, Evelyn Robinson, more consistently at the center, and Luke Csordas, who will lift his partner several times but remain the only dancer who briefly leaps into the air. Three other duos rotate during the 15-performance run.

Earthbound, with a seething impulse to soar, From Africa With Love is haunting. It’s impossible for me to be sure whether November views its lively yet fragile beauty as emerging or fading.

You will need to abandon your seat — and the McBride-Bonnefoux studio — during intermission. You will also be asked to change your seat when you return and give some thought to the question of whether you wish to sit in the front row. My wife Sue, the tender-hearted Tannenbaum, was concerned that the elderly and disabled who normally populate the front row would be displaced, forced to climb stairs to reach the rows behind them.

My faith in Charlotte Ballet was not shaken. Or to put it another way, I was not at all worried. After intermission, my faith was vindicated. Not only were there greatly expanded opportunities to grab a front-row seat, the other natural option, to return to our original seats, was eliminated. They were gone.

While this exciting transformation was happening behind closed doors, Patt and Sara, alias trumpeter Matt Postle and keyboardist Jess Borgnis, nestled into the Center for Dance lobby in front of the stylish staircase, framed by rows of purple lights as they played. Past the headshots of the Charlotte Ballet dancers, at the top of the staircase, we could look down at the cool jazz duo from the balcony or appreciate the artworks mounted on the walls behind us.

Trumpeter Matt Postle and keyboardist Jess Borgnis perform in the lobby of Charlotte Ballet during intermission
Matt Postle and Jess Borgnis perform in the lobby of Charlotte Ballet Center for Dance during intermission (Photo by Perry Tannenbaum)

Sadly, my heartlessness extends beyond the elderly and physically challenged to the artists representing the Art League and the jazz duo. Other than enjoying the art and the music or noting that all was quite good, I observed an intermission of my own from reviewing and whipped out an iPhone to help me document the stylish ambiance.

No other local company even strives to match the hospitality at the McBride-Bonnefoux, and only the Music @ St. Alban’s series up in Davidson seems to have stumbled upon similar possibilities of desserts and extra entertainment for all their patrons.

Yet the fullest impact of Breaking Boundaries was undoubtedly reserved for after intermission. The grandstand where our seats had been was now collapsed into the rear wall. Instead of one front row facing the studio performing space, there were now four rows of benches boxing it in. We made a beeline for a bench with a back rest, noticing along the way that there were spaces marked “Reserved”: our first hint.

It wasn’t long before the 15 dancers performing Ohad Naharin’s Kamuyot, dressed in loud woolen plaid skirts and slacks, settled into those designated spaces. By this time, the reason for the front-row caution was clear enough.

If you don’t mind being invited to join the dancers on the floor — or you don’t mind turning down such an invitation — you’re OK. Otherwise, second row. Those who experienced second-row remorse could remedy their plight with a little extra exertion when the time came, capturing a dancer’s attention and an invite.

Even translated from the Hebrew as “Quantities,” Naharin’s title didn’t offer much of a clue to what might follow. There were no song titles in the program, but the list of 22 composers and artists, ranging from John Tavener and L. V. Beethoven to Lou Reed and The Ventures, broadly hinted at a bumpy ride.

Indeed, the delight of unpredictability was sustained throughout the piece as single dancers or couples from all four sides of the stage took their turns on the floor and returned to their places. From the randomness of the order of dancers seizing the spotlight and yielding it, a certain inevitability set in if we were noticing who hadn’t yet risen and performed.

From then on Kamuyot was more of an ensemble piece. Distilled from previous works, Naharin aimed this work specifically at young audiences and, logically enough, created it for The Young Ensemble of the company he founded in Tel Aviv, Batsheva.

The work has been staged across Israel in school gymnasiums, so the work aligns more closely with the studio space than most of the choreography we have previously seen staged at the McBride-Bonnefoux. On the other hand, staging the work at night in front of an adult audience alters Naharin’s calculus and the whole atmosphere of the dance.

Instead of encouraging kids to get involved with dance and experience its joys, Kamuyot now stretches out its hands to adults and old-timers to bridge the gap between themselves and their youth. With a soundtrack that ranges from the opening bars of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata to The Ventures’ “Theme Song from Hawaii Five-O,” Naharin’s lively, kaleidoscopic work encourages traffic in both directions, for nothing is dumbed-down for his intended family audiences, ages 6 and up.

When dancers stand silently in front of you, or when they beckon you to join them on the floor, you know exactly what Cerrudo meant when he named this rousing season-opening program Breaking Boundaries. I would rate my own performance, when I answered the dancers’ calls, as rather wretched — but I surrendered my objectivity and the ability to even view the entire spectacle as soon as I entered it. What I gained in exchange for those losses was the full flavor of the experience.

I invite you to try it, and to bring a child along with you.

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