The Bad and The Beautiful Fuses Contemporary and Modern Dance at Herberger Theater

We're used to seeing dancing vampires this time of year, thanks to A Vampire Tale choreographed by Lisa Starry for her Scorpius Dance Theatre. Now Valley audiences can also enjoy the première of a new Starry work titled Fade, which is part of The Bad and The Beautiful program for Center Dance Ensemble (CDE) of Phoenix.

Center Dance Ensemble opened its 2014-15 season Thursday, October 23, with a five-piece program that includes four world première dances, including Fade, in addition to the ballet Billy the Kid choreographed by CDE artistic director Frances Smith Cohen.

See also: 5 Must-See Dance Performances in Metro Phoenix This Fall

Four new works are presented during the first act, and Billy the Kid is the sole piece in the second act. The full program runs about 90 minutes with a single intermission, and is being performed at Herberger Theater Center.

The program opens with a piece Cohen choreographed and dedicated to mentor Ethel Butler, whose other students included dance greats Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. With Wings features music by Francis Poulenc and dancers in roles that include student, teacher, colleague, and partner. It's a moving homage to the journey from student to teacher, opening with a lone dancer who'll watch her own students drifting farther away as the piece draws to a close.

Starry's Fade follows. It's danced to original music by Kristofer Hill, with additional music by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell, and features eight dancers. The piece opens as dancers donning flowing silver tops and grey leggings repeatedly move forward, then back again, as if pulled by an invisible magnetic force. Arched backs under beams of light streaming from above conjure images of an extraterrestrial aircraft exerting control over human subjects.

Dancers kick and spin, moving ever faster in dervish-like fashion. Silence erupts for a time, and their heavy breathing punctuates the space. Four pairs of dancers create different vignettes until all move slowly forward together, touching ever so slightly to convey their cohesion as the piece concludes. Fade garnered significant applause on opening night, and even some enthusiastic whooping and hollering Cohen attributes to audience members accustomed to watching Dancing with the Stars on television.

Cohen choreographed the third piece, titled Red, which she bills as "the true story behind Ms. Riding Hood and the Wolf." It's a playful piece danced with technical skill and infectious charisma by D. Daniel Hollingshead and Nicole Olson to music by Juan Esquivel, Margarita Lecuona, and Roberto Bolanos. There's no victim here, as in the classic fairy tale; only a flirty pair who find joy in the back and forth banter of their bodies.

Night of Moonlit Wild, choreographed by CDE resident choreographer and education outreach director Diane McNeal Hunt, rounds out the first act. It's performed by 13 dancers clad in black to music by Johann Paul Von Westhoff, Gustavo Santaolalla, Lera Auerbach, Arvo Part, James Newton Howard, and Max Richter. The best moments feature beautiful lifts demonstrating dancers' elegance and strength.

Thunder and lightning flash as dancers take to the stage. Six brambles of branches, the only set pieces of the evening save a lone street lamp prominent at the start of With Wings, sit in a row at the back of the stage until periodically picked up and shaken. Erin Lovrien, who wears a distracting pale silk robe for much of the dance, performs a "Moon solo" that fails to achieve the passion evident in the evening's other works.

Billy the Kid is choreographed by Cohen and performed to music composed by Aaron Copland in 1938. The cast of 15 includes Emilio Minto as Billy the Kid and Katie McDowell as Dream Girl. Their performance is pleasant enough, but overshadowed by the precision and grace of D. Daniel Hollingshead as Wagon Master and Amber Robins as Wife Rebecca.

The Bad and the Beautiful is performed to recorded music, but there's a unifying thread of piano, strings and percussion that helps an evening filled with divergent dance feel cohesive.

Costumes are designed by Margret Emerson, who has been with CDE for a decade. Most impressive are Billy the Kid capes and ponchos in colors that mirror a fall vegetable crop, and the short red dress with cape worn by Olson in Little Red Riding Hood mode.

Lighting design that includes placing a golden moon in a dark sky, and creating barren trees for an imagined fairy tale forest, is the work of Michael Eddy. Bright blues with greens, and gradations of red and blue punctuated by white clouds or other elements, are prominent in Eddy's palette for this production. Stars that sometimes dot the sky were lent by Ballet Arizona.

The Bad and the Beautiful, which continues through Sunday, is the best fusion of modern and contemporary dance I have seen from Center Dance Ensemble in some time.

Performances continue through Sunday, October 26. Abbreviated one-hour productions are part of the venue's Lunch Time Theater series. Get tickets, which are $6 for Lunch Time shows and $28 for adults at other times, by calling 602-252-8497 or online.

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