Bellying up to the barre

The rift among the critics is as predictable as “Old Joe Clark”: Those who dread the pretensions of Swan Lake-style choreography (not to mention Tchaikovsky and his ilk) are pleasantly surprised when the folksy strains of bluegrass drift across the stage.

Those who love the refined art of classical dance, however, aren’t exactly leaping to their feet to shout “Bravo.”

“Did they have to start every song with the same Bill Monroe mandolin lick?” sniffed Ballet Magazine in a 2004 review.

As for Asheville’s itinerant bluegrass band, the Greasy Beans, they’re just happy that their third season performing with the North Carolina Dance Theatre (NCDT) finally brings them to their hometown. “I’m glad,” guitarist Josh Haddix says of the performance scheduled for Diana Wortham Theatre this week, “just because I’ve been trying for a while to describe to people what it’s like.”

Scenes from the New South

Sure, bluegrass and ballet make strange bedfellows – and that’s exactly why Haddix didn’t believe it when NCDT Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux contacted the musicians back in 2004.

“I asked him if he had the right band,” the guitarist laughs. “And then I asked him why. I wondered if they were going to do some cheesy clogging thing with the dancers.”

What Bonnefoux told the Greasy Beans was that the mark by which artists are measured in ballet has as much to do with innovation as technique. That said, the artistic director created Under Southern Skies: An Exploration and Celebration of the South, including “Sweet Tea,” a piece choreographed by former Alvin Ailey dancer Uri Sands; Bonnefoux’s “I’m With You,” a dance set to music by Christine Kane; and “Shindig,” performed with the Greasy Beans. Though a far reach from ballet’s French roots (not to mention the American tradition closely linked to George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet), Under Southern Skies seems fitting, as the dance company’s motto is “Honoring our legacy, celebrating our future.”

“I would never have imagined in 100 years we’d be doing anything like this,” the Beans’ mandolinist, Charley Brophy, admits. “But it’s such a great experience, and an honor to be part of the dance theater.”

He adds, “We’re just a band. We’re proud of the work we’ve done, but to be paired with ballet is extra special. The match is really intriguing.”

Amsterdam like the Red Hot Chili Peppers never saw it

Fans of the Greasy Beans might not readily agree that the now-five-piece outfit (including bassist David Brown, Brad Hutchinson on banjo and Cailen Campbell on fiddle) is “just a band.” From their humble start on the campus of Warren Wilson College, the group has garnered wider critical acclaim and toured the country. They’ve teamed with Seattle alt-grassers Danny Barnes and Keith Lowe, and with the release of their latest effort, 2005’s Busted, the band finds themselves considering a European tour this summer.

“Switzerland and Amsterdam,” Haddix notes. “Hopefully we’ll be playing the European World of Bluegrass Festival in the Netherlands.”

Of course, bluegrass has long been loved overseas – and with more constancy than in its home country. But back Stateside the genre is still cresting, accumulating fans among pop-saturated Americans thanks to such fashionable crossover groups as Nickel Creek.

“I think definitely more people are appreciating bluegrass. I think it’s in its golden age,” Haddix offers. “But I’ve heard from some old guys it’s not the first time this has happened.”

Both Haddix and Brophy (the Beans’ two original members) recall when they were one of a handful of acoustic bands gigging in Asheville.

“Now it’s a 180-degree turn,” the guitarist says.

Not afraid of a minor key

And though Haddix soberly speculates that the bluegrass trend will last a while before, once again, losing popularity, he’s happy to ride that wave for the time being. Especially when it involves collaborations with the likes of NCDT.

Working with dancers proved an interesting challenge for the band. Used to the improvisational format of bluegrass, they had to adapt to playing each song note for note on stage with the ballet company. “Because you’re working with a dance routine, you’re kind of confined,” Brophy explains.

“There was another ballet choreographed to our music before ‘Shindig,’” Haddix reveals. Titled “Double Blind,” the piece was also created by NCDT.

“It’s the complete opposite of ‘Shindig,’” Haddix notes. “Very political and dark—

“Scary, almost,” Brophy interjects.

And though budget issues led to a decision not to perform the dance, Haddix reports that he likes taking bluegrass down roads less traveled. “It’s a chance to show another side of what we do.”

North Carolina Dance Theatre brings Under Southern Skies to Diana Wortham Theatre Friday, March 3 and Saturday, March 4. Performances are at 8 p.m. nightly. Tickets run $30/adults, $28/seniors, $25/students and $10/children. For more information, call 257-4530.


About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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