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NCDT dancers bring Bearden scenes to life

NCDT pays tribute to Charlotte-born painter through choreographed collage.

Steven Brown
The Charlotte Observer

The street is bustling. Here and there in the crowd, little conflicts erupt: Men are competing for women's attention.

A voice suddenly breaks through.

"This has to be severe in order to work! The way you do it has to be real!"

The street scene is actually playing out in one of N.C. Dance Theatre's rehearsal studios. Choreographer Dwight Rhoden is making it clear that he wants everyone to do more than just execute steps.

That isn't enough when the goal is to make Romare Bearden's artworks come to life.

NCDT is getting a jump on Bearden's centennial. The company's tribute to Bearden this week will be Charlotte's first celebration of his birth here on Sept. 2, 1911.

The city has been transformed since then. But scenes from long-ago Mecklenburg County - and New York City and the Caribbean, Bearden's homes as an adult - still stand their ground in his vibrant paintings, collages and graphics. Some of that art will shine behind the dancers as NCDT performs its tribute.

At an open rehearsal for the work - titled "Reflections Of ..." - Rhoden drew a parallel with one of Bearden's specialties.

"I'm trying to make a collage," Rhoden said. The characters and situations Bearden depicted were his starting point.

"I'm looking at the (human) figures I see in his work," Rhoden said. "I'm looking at the colors." And he hopes to expand on the illusion that a Bearden collage can create.

"It looks flat, but really there's depth," Rhoden said. "I'm trying to create that from a stage perspective."

Mecklenburg and beyond

Rhoden draws on Bearden's depictions of Mecklenburg County, where the future artist lived as a toddler; New York, where the grown-up Bearden supported himself as a social worker and created art after hours; and Caribbean locales such as the island of St. Martin, where his wife had roots and they owned a second home. Rhoden also takes time to explore Bearden's fascination with the female form.

"He painted a lot of women," Rhoden told the rehearsal audience. "Some of them are like the Madonna. Some of them are not - they're from the street," he added with a laugh. "They're the opposite."

Rhoden's choreography is "all powered by the art itself," he said. But that doesn't mean his goal is to have his dancers re-enact pictures. Rhoden invoked a comment by Bearden, who said he hoped his paintings had enough in them that everyone could see something. Everyone, Bearden added, might see something different.

'Look and it and imagine'

Rhoden took that as permission to be inventive with what he observed. His choreography, he said, contains "more than I can see in the paintings themselves. ... You have to look at it and imagine and go a little further."

So, after absorbing Bearden's collage "The Block" - a stretch of a Harlem street - Rhoden imagined the neighborhood in another part of the day, when it was livelier and more crowded. That spawned the scene with the men vying for the women's favor. Bearden's "Holiness Church Revival" made Rhoden think of worshipers whose fervor grips them to the point that they speak in tongues or have fainting spells.

Music helps flesh out the scenes. Gospel energizes the Bible Belt church service. Bach complements the more-pure side of Bearden's women. Big-band music by Duke Ellington - a friend of Bearden - propels the Harlem high life.

All that supplies Rhoden with an abundance of ingredients for his collage.

"Hopefully, I'm going to make you dizzy," Rhoden told the rehearsal viewers. "Because that's what (Bearden's) work does. It makes me dizzy - in a good way."