They call it “dance” theater for a reason.
Now in its 20th season, Chapel Hill Dance Theater will present five original works at Chapel Hill High School this weekend.
But cofounder M’Liss Dorrance says don’t come expecting just tutus and classical ballet, though there is certainly some of that.
“Ballet has now morphed into more contemporary movement,” the veteran teacher, 64, said at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, the dance company’s home.
“Everybody has an idea that ballet is like, very 18th, 19th century – ladies in frilly tutus, raised hands,” she said, lifting her arms like a music-box ballerina. “That’s not it at all.”
For two decades, Chapel Hill Dance Theater has produced works based on classic tales such as “Little House on the Prairie,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Peter Pan,” “Peter and the Wolf” and “Alice in Wonderland,” all choreographed by its staff.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the company will perform five pieces, including Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals“ and a restaging Dorrance has done of late cofounder Carol Richard’s “High Noon Ramble” featuring the music of the Red Clay Ramblers, the popular folk band founded in Durham.
Dorrance, wife of UNC women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, remembers teaching “Ramble” in 1979, pregnant with the couple’s first child.
“It’s still familiar to me physically,” she said. “I can remember the nuances, even the words (Richard) used to convey the movements she wanted.”
In rehearsal, Dorrance and the other teacher sit on a low bench in front of a wall of mirrors.
When a group of dancers fails to convey the joy in a piece, she stands up and tells them she’s not buying it. The audience needs to see their exuberance in their face and not just their feet.
During a break, Sadie Emch, 17, a swan in “Carnival,” asks if she can rehearse her solo again.
She’s been dancing at the school since she was 7 and considers the company, for which students must audition, a second family.
“Each time I dance, I get to escape from the world and focus on myself and how my body is moving through space,” she said. “The ballet studio is my refuge.”
But the refuge requires daily practice.
“Ballet is hard,” Emch said. “I’ve learned how to take the challenges and use them to motivate myself, but also to have the patience to keep going when things don’t happen right away.”
Zack Weiss, 18, is performing with the company for the last time before high school graduation.
He too has learned to push himself. He’s run cross country, played tennis and ultimate Frisbee, but says dance challenges him in a different way.
In most sports, “it doesn’t matter how you get to the ball,” he explained. “But in dance the ‘how” is the entire thing.”
Dorrance looks for lyrical movement in her dancers.
“When they move to music, it’s like holding the note,” she said. In rehearsal, she instructs dancers to hold their heads up, to extend their arms and fingers. “It makes the steps sing.”
In time, Dorrance hopes young dancers replace a goal that some start out with — an idealized notion of what a dancer should be — with an appreciation of the art form and a desire to achieve personal excellence.
That excellence will be on display this weekend, and Dorrance says the only thing that might have made it better would have been getting the Red Clay Ramblers to perform live.
“That would have been quite a coup,” she said and laughed, “but they were already booked.”
If you go
Chapel Hill Dance Theater will perform in Hanes Theater at Chapel Hill High School at 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14. Tickets, $10 for adults and $6 for students and seniors, are available at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, 1603 E. Franklin St., and at the door.