There can be no arguing with the technical prowess of North Carolina Dance Theatre. They were in town, playing their “American Masters” program (to a very sparse audience), which meant a dose of jazz-heavy Alvin Ailey (“Night Creatures,” to music by Duke Ellington), neo-classical George Balanchine (“Who Cares?” to George Gershwin), and ballroom-witty Twyla Tharp (“Nine Sinatra Songs” to songs by guess who). And NCDT, directed by a former Balanchine principal (Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux) certainly had the chops to execute the rich array of choreography. Scissor-fast where needed, slouchy or hawk-like through the arms and torso as required, syncopated in group work—they had it all. True technicians, they exemplified the kind of all-purpose, athletic training that is a hallmark of contemporary American dancing. Many of the few were thrilled, as numerous intermission conversations attested.
But it wasn’t happening for me. Not until the final number—the Tharp. What do I look for in dance then, if not precision? Isn’t technique enough? What inspires me after many years of watching American dance is a certain recklessness, a sense the dancer has thrown herself right to the edge of the music—nearly off balance, electric and alive with the joy of movement. Yes, you’re smiling, dear performer, but are you happy?
The beauty of “Nine Sinatra Songs” (seven couples sample the variety of relationships found on a social dance floor, from fading attraction, to seamlessly in love, to bossy and flirtatious, and more) is that its nontraditional combination of ballroom steps and deliberate vernacular leaves a dancer nowhere to hide. You either respond to the music or you risk looking uncertain and awkward, as if you don’t know what you’re doing and why. Well, it’s a relief to say, technical correctness aside, NCDT does seem to know what it’s doing. You’ll get no argument from me.