Hunger Ballet

Emma McGirr of Nevada Ballet Theatre and Michael Mengden of Cincinnati Ballet are seen in “HUNGER,” a contemporary ballet by Heather Maloy of Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance.

Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance unleashed its dazzling combination of classical ballet and contemporary sensibility on Winston-Salem Thursday night for the first time in seven years.

The Asheville company with deep roots in Winston-Salem has grown in artistry and inventiveness over the intervening years, and it has been a bright light in Western North Carolina since its birth in 2003.

Artistic Director Heather Maloy grew up in Winston-Salem, attended UNC School of the Arts and danced for 13 years with the North Carolina Dance Theatre. That company, directed at the time by the late Sal Aiello, a teacher at UNCSA, moved to Charlotte in 1990, and Maloy debarked for Asheville in 2002.

Terpsicorps performed here from 2008 to 2012. Thank heaven it’s back and trying to establish dual residencies in the two cities.

In the arts, summertime brings both blessings and curses. In the case of Terpsicorps, the off-season allows Maloy to hire top-tier dancers from companies like the Atlanta Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet. On the downside, potential audience members are off to the beach or the mountains — or Italy or Greece.

If you’re here, go see Terpsicorps tonight. You won’t see anything quite like it anywhere else.

The current program, “HUNGER,” is being presented in cooperation with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest N.C. Maloy choreographed the title show in 2014 to raise awareness of food insecurities in the state.

We’ll circle back to that.

Of the 14 dancers, four have local connections. The cast includes two Triad natives who came up through UNCSA’s pre-professional and high school ballet programs, and two UNCSA graduates: Lydia McRae (Kernersville) dances with the Memphis Ballet; Samantha Griffin (Winston-Salem) and Christina LaForgia Morse are with the Cincinnati Ballet; William Fowler is a freelance dancer.

First, Terpsicorps is known for its humor, and this program does not disappoint. The show opens on a feather-light note with “AYT? (Are You There?)” — an ode to cellphones and our ridiculous attachment to them. Dancers throw them, drop them, reach for them, fight for them, leap and twirl for them.

The second piece is an homage to Mel Tomlinson, a mentor of Maloy and a great dancer who died in February. Tomlinson was a phenomenal dancer who was born in Raleigh, attended UNCSA, and danced with N.C. Dance Theatre. He also had a career in New York City with Alvin Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, New York City Ballet and more.

Maloy scoured the U.S. for a dancer who would do Tomlinson justice in a piece originally choreographed for him by Aiello. She found Atlanta Ballet’s Keith Justin-Reeves.

Justin-Reeves performs the piece, “Extensions,” beautifully. In it, a solo dancer starts at a ballet barre, working through increasingly intricate patterns of preparatory work, then extending into more expressive dance movements with turns and leaps, opening and closing his body, breaking free from the barre for a time and eventually returning to its liberating discipline.

The masterwork here is “HUNGER,” which is performed after intermission and involves the whole company. It asks the question, “What do you hunger for?” The answers are many: love, belonging, escape, power, attention, survival, to name a few.

One of Maloy’s talents is her ability to take classical ballet steps and combine them in completely unexpected ways. It gives her work a particular kind of beauty and delightfulness.

The piece opens and closes with a full ensemble dance to “Water Fountain” by Tune-Yards, the first called “Hunger for Sustenance,” the finale, “Hunger To Make a Difference.” They are buoyant and exuberant.

The second section, “Hunger for Love,” is a standout both for its movement and its music, “Wild Is the Wind,” by Nina Simone. Emma McGirr moves like a desperate dream, running from lover to lover, hanging on and rejecting, regretting and then craving again.

“Hunger To Belong” lightens things up with Doc Watson’s “Black Mountain Rag,” as Fowler tries unsuccessfully to get three other dancers to include him in their revels.

It was gratifying to see a dance done with those light-up plastic balls. “Hunger for More” has the dancers collecting more and more bright shiny things until enough is enough.

The “Hunger for Attention” will have you laughing and nearly weeping as Michael Mengden pulls every show-off dancer trick out of the bag in his insistence on attention, including repeatedly diving into the spotlight.

“Hunger for Power” and “Hunger To Kill” are as terrifying as they sound, and “Hunger for Redemption” is a rollicking gospel-tinged frolic.

“HUNGER” puts all our cravings on parade, and succeeds both viscerally and aesthetically. It is gorgeous, thought-and-feeling-provoking dance.

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