Atlanta Ballet’s New Choreographic Voices Will Leave You Gaga

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The Atlanta Ballet opened this year’s New Choreographic Voices offering on Friday, March 22, with a program of three works that spanned the gamut of dance styles from contemporary ballet to modern dance to salsa.  This concert gave the audience members a chance to reflect on themselves and engage with the dancers.

Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall has repeatedly gifted Atlanta with stunning new repertoire that astonishes and intrigues audiences, but, more than that, it engages them. The 2013 NCV surpassed previous performances in every way. This year’s performance offered three works that drastically differed from one another, and that dared the audience members to remain aloof from the action on the stage and in their midst. At the opening performance March 22, they responded with four standing ovations, three of them within “Minus 16,” and numerous shouts of approval.

Claire Stallman and Jonah Hooper in Christopher Wheeldon's "Rush. Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Claire Stallman and Jonah Hooper in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush. Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

A reprise of Christopher Wheeldon’s three-movement ballet, “Rush,” set to music by Bohuslav Martinu, opened the performance. “Rush” appeared on last year’s NCV concert. Since then, the former New York City Ballet dancer has been appointed Artistic Adviser to London’s Royal Ballet.  “Rush” is a contemporary take on classical ballet, with quick directional changes; invisible preparations; beautifully-designed shape sculptures; and angular lines, contrasted with curving, flowing movement.  Like  Balanchine, Wheeldon has a deep understanding of, and connection to, the music. The first movement was my favorite, with choreography that began moving from a silhouetted pose as if it were shot out of a cannon. The pointe work appears effortless and the men’s elevation in leaps and jumps was astonishing, giving the nod to Wheeldon’s ability to create movement that works for the dancers as well as the audience.   “Rush” was the audience’s warm up, allowing us to bask in the excitement of acceleration in the first and third movements, and the consummate control of Abigail Tan-Gamino and Georgia’s own Jonah Hooper in the long, second-movement adagio. 

Jonah Hooper, Nadia Mara and Miguel Montoya in Gina Patterson's "I Am." Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Jonah Hooper, Nadia Mara and Miguel Montoya in Gina Patterson’s “I Am.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

“I AM” was choreographed by Gina Patterson, whom Atlanta audiences will remember from “Quietly Walking,” one of the pieces included in Ignition, the first New Choreographic Voices performance in 2011.  “I AM,” in the words of the choreographer, “…will lead you on a journey, allowing you time to…discover your own stories unfolding.”  The piece is exquisitely crafted, with the dancers paring down the movement and the costumes to reveal the bare essences of thought and emotion.  Musical repeats are treated in unexpected ways. Miniature canons are presented with intervals so close as to be almost indiscernible without razor-sharp attention, suggesting shadows. Layers of gesture and meaning build the total construct as an artist would craft a sculpture from clay.  At the end, the dancers replace their outer costumes, ready to re-engage with their lives. The piece is set upon a rectangle scribed on the stage against a spare backdrop of sand and sky, all designed by collaborating designer Jorge Gallardo, which serves as a nearly blank page upon which the dancers carve their stories. Patterson’s choreography demands that the dancers immerse themselves in introspection, but they must also inspire the audience to witness the outcomes of their pilgrimage. The piece is equally delicate and powerful, fragile and intense, subtle and potent.  There are no “stars” in this work; every dancer is equally integral to the landscape.

Atlanta Ballet performing Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16." Photograph by C, McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Atlanta Ballet performing Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16.” Photograph by C, McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Israeli choreographer and artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company Ohad Naharim’s highly-lauded “Minus 16” brings the audience into the dance, ripping aside the invisible curtain that usually separates observers and performers.  As the audience returns from intermission, a lone dancer dressed in a business suit squeezes through the curtain and stares them down for a few minutes before he begins to move. “Minus 16” is created through Naharim’s signature dance language, Gaga. Naharim gradually introduces people to Gaga, giving them a chance to experience it through a single dancer before being overwhelmed by the intensity of a large group moving in this unique style that incorporates  intense body isolations and unusual movement initiations.   Heath Gill is, most appropriately, the dancer of choice for the mission, as he can make himself larger-than-life.  “Minus 16” is high-speed and complex, sometimes humorous and always in-your-face, and Gill leads the Atlanta Ballet dancers in his ability to rise to the challenges given him with humor and aplomb. “Minus 16” contains some surprise moments, but also the most easily accessible choreography on the program, and it leaves the audience energized and craving one more taste. It is easy to see why this work has amassed so much critical acclaim.  Friday night, it had the audience on its collective feet more than once before the curtain descended for the last time. 

McFall wisely incorporated an intermission between each work on the program, which allowed dancers a few minutes to recharge and audience members time to digest what they had just seen and refresh their artistic palates before encountering the next, very different piece. There is an art to performance-planning, and this one was expertly orchestrated.

Rachel Van Buskirk and Jackie Nash in Gina Patterson's "I AM." Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Rachel Van Buskirk and Jackie Nash in Gina Patterson’s “I AM.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Friday night the Ballet reached out to the community with a discount ticket special for Atlanta’s college students.  Any students who didn’t take advantage of the opportunity should be kicking themselves.  This performance was a remarkable chance for dance fans to see a variety of dance styles.  Even more, it was an opportunity for newcomers to live dance to discover the passion and joy it brings, with a talk-back after the concert that gave the audience a chance to question choreographer Gina Patterson and learn more about her choreographic process.

For more information about the Atlanta Ballet and upcoming performances, visit http://www.atlantaballet.com/.  More to the pointe (yes, pun intended), book your tickets.

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