The North Carolina Dance Festival opened its 23rd season this past Friday and Saturday at Meredith College. NCDF presents itself as a celebration of and introduction to the state’s companies and dance-makers, but this year, the festival highlighted dancers more than dances.

In particular, NCDF was awash in modern movers, dancers smooth and powerful as waves and rooted like trees, with whiplash extensions and zero-to-60 dynamics. So many accomplished dancers in this style shared the stage that it’s hard to single any one out. Natalie Morton’s tensile strength shone as she arced back from a deep lunge in Black Box Dance’s Move to Action; in the same dance, Sarah Putterman let her long lines flow without self-consciousness. In an elastic sketch, Ronald West bounced through anti-grav coordination puzzles in his own XOXO . hug . kiss . hit . miss.

Tall and angular, with legs from here to Asheville, Jenn Shinn revealed her ballet background in Jen Guy Metcalf’s Words and Deeds, etching her arabesques with the grace and strength of a suspension bridge. Still, lovely as Shinn is, a display of her lines (partnered with Jim Reynolds) doesn’t propel her to that edge where the most exciting dancing happens, and still less does it make for dance thinking. Metcalf’s work was hardly alone here. Both nights, most choreographers offered music-dependent pieces that showcased rather than pushed their dancers and didn’t so much plumb as exhibit a single mood—pleasant enough, but they didn’t leave much behind in the mind.

Carol Kyles Finley went a bit further with her Duet for Married Couple, a funny but ultimately rather depressing take on the domestic in which the husband and wife sneak peeks at the television as they romance each other by rote.

Renay Aumiller spun out new ways to lift and fall in an excerpt from her Pretty/ Ugly, performed with velvet partnering from William Commander and Stephanie Blackmon. I noted the symmetries of the piece—he lifts her high overhead in an upside-down straddle, a feat of strength and balance; later, she lifts him into a similar position, but now it’s aching, almost not even in the air. Eventually I began to wonder what was wrong with this pair who can’t stand up on their own. Has something happened to them, or are they just the world’s neediest couple?

The most ambitious choreography in the Festival was not well served by the festival format. Take Stillicidium—Ode to the Unimportant, from Alban Elved Dance Company. On her knees on an amplified surface in searing light, Karola Lüttringhaus crawled, flailed, and muttered about what she was up to: “My arm circles. . . and the world comes out of its track, ever so slightly,” or “Talk among yourselves… I will carry on anyway.” She looked sick of her own facility, searching for a new way to move. On Friday night, she didn’t find it—or maybe I didn’t recognize it when she did. Neither would be surprising, given how different from the rest of the show, how isolated this piece was.

ShaLeigh Comerford’s Dedicated to [ ] because of [ ] (and vice versa) flaunts a complex of references (check that title) and content: five madwomen in nighties dice up space with laser arms and flop in broken baby-doll slumps while a single suited man rants caustically at them or us. Everyone eats apples and abuses furniture. Where it all lands, who knows? Disturbing and messy, Dedicated to arrived at the very end of the over-long Friday concert, when audiences had the least patience or curiosity.

Jessi Knight Walker struck the deepest chord with her I Mind. Choreographer and dancer, Walker took the inner drama of Eurydice and matched it to a simple constraint: a dance in one place. From here, she spun out the resources of her body—moody Latin rhythms, African-derived pulses, sudden swings and stops as smooth and dangerous as fire. Is your death in you or is it outside you, her dance asked, and she didn’t give a simple answer. Walker’s one misstep was a closing howl. She didn’t need to scream; her dancing made enough noise.

The festival stops next in Boone (Oct. 24–26).